Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 August 2, 1923) was the twenty-ninth President of the United States, serving from 1921 until his death from a heart attack, aged 57, in 1923. A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate (1899–1903) and later as Lieutenant Governor of Ohio (1903–1905) and as a U.S. Senator (1915–1921).
His political leanings were conservative, which enabled him to become the compromise choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention. During his presidential campaign, held in the aftermath of World War I, he promised a return to "normalcy"; and, in the 1920 election, he defeated his Democratic opponent, fellow Ohioan James M. Cox, in the largest presidential popular vote landslide in American history since the popular vote tally began to be recorded in 1824: 60.36% to 34.19%.
Harding headed a cabinet of notable men such as Charles Evans Hughes, Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover and Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, who was jailed for his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal. In foreign affairs, Harding signed peace treaties that built on the Treaty of Versailles (which formally ended World War I). He also led the way to world Naval disarmament at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–22.
By many, Harding is ranked as one of the least successful U.S. Presidents, despite having been immensely popular while in office.
After graduating, Harding moved to Marion, Ohio, where he and two friends raised $300 with which to purchase the failing Marion Daily Star, the weakest of the growing city's three newspapers. Harding revamped the paper's editorial platform to support the Republican Party, and enjoyed a moderate degree of success. However, his political stance put him at odds with those who controlled Marion's local politics. Thus when Harding moved to unseat the Marion Independent as the official paper of daily record, he met with vocal resistance from local figures, such as Amos Hall Kling, one of Marion's wealthiest real estate speculators.
While Harding won the war of words and made the Marion Daily Star one of the most popular newspapers in the county, the battle took a toll on his health. In 1889, when Harding was 24, he suffered from exhaustion and nervous fatigue. He spent several weeks at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to regain his strength, ultimately making five visits over fourteen years. Harding later returned to Marion to continue operating the paper. He spent his days boosting the community on the editorial pages, and his evenings "bloviating" (Harding's term for "informally conversing") with his friends over games of poker.
On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Kling, the daughter of his nemesis, Amos Hall Kling. Florence Kling was a divorcée, five years Harding's senior, and the mother of a young son, Marshall Eugene DeWolfe. She had pursued Harding persistently, until he reluctantly proposed. Florence's father was furious with his daughter's decision to marry Harding, forbidding his wife from attending the wedding and not speaking to his daughter or son-in-law for eight years.
The couple complemented one another, with Harding's affable personality balancing his wife's no-nonsense approach to life. Florence Harding, exhibiting her father's determination and business sense, turned the Marion Daily Star into a profitable business. She has been credited with helping Harding achieve more than he might have alone; some have speculated that she later pushed him all the way to the White House.
Joseph Nathan Kane's book, Facts About the Presidents, stated that Harding was "the second President elected while a Senator." This becomes a matter of semantics. On January 13, 1880, the Ohio legislature appointed James A. Garfield, who was then a Congressman from Ohio, to the U.S. Senate for the term beginning March 4, 1881 (at that time, Senators were elected by state legislatures rather than directly by the citizens). He won the Presidential election on November 2, so on that date he was at once Congressman, Senator-elect, and President-elect. Garfield accepted the Presidential election and soon relinquished the other offices. He never actually sat in the Senate seat, as his term was not to begin for another four months.
Because of the technicality, Harding continues to be generally considered the first "truly" sitting Senator to become President, Kennedy being the second. For example, George Will referred to Harding that way in his Newsweek commentary in the issue of June 16, 2008, p.60, in pointing out that the two presumptive candidates in the 2008 race are both sitting Senators.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell became the latest of a long string of political pundits and ordinary voters who felt that Warren Harding's electoral success was based on his appearance, essentially that he "looked like a president". Gladwell argues that people's first impression of Harding tended to be so highly favorable that it gave them a fixed and very high opinion of Harding, which could not be shaken unless his intellectual and other deficiencies became glaring. Gladwell even refers to the flawed process by which people make decisions as 'Warren Harding Error.'
In the 1920 election, Harding ran against Democratic Ohio Governor James M. Cox, whose running-mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. The election was seen in part as a referendum on whether to continue with the "progressive" work of the Woodrow Wilson Administration or to revert to the "laissez-faire" approach of the William McKinley era.
Harding ran on a promise to "Return to Normalcy", a seldom-used term he popularized. The slogan called an end to the abnormal era of the Great War, along with a call to reflect three trends of his time: a renewed isolationism in reaction to the War, a resurgence of nativism, and a turning away from the government activism of the reform era.
Harding's "front porch campaign" during the late summer and fall of 1920 captured the imagination of the country. Not only was it the first campaign to be heavily covered by the press and to receive widespread newsreel coverage, but it was also the first modern campaign to use the power of Hollywood and Broadway stars, who traveled to Marion for photo opportunities with Harding and his wife. Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford were among the conservative-minded luminaries to make the pilgrimage to central Ohio. Business icons Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone also lent their cachet to the campaign. From the onset of the campaign until the November election, over 600,000 people traveled to Marion to participate.
The campaign owed a great deal to Florence Harding, who played perhaps a more active role than any previous candidate's wife in a presidential race. She cultivated the relationship between the campaign and the press. As the business manager of the Star, she understood reporters and their industry and played to their needs by making herself freely available to answer questions, pose for pictures, or deliver food prepared in her kitchen to the press office, which was a bungalow she had constructed at the rear of their property in Marion. Mrs. Harding even went so far as to coach her husband on the proper way to wave to newsreel cameras to make the most of coverage.
The campaign also drew upon Harding's popularity with women. Considered handsome, Harding photographed well compared to Cox. However, it was Harding's support for women's suffrage in the Senate that made him popular with women: the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920 brought huge crowds of women to Marion, Ohio to hear Harding. Immigrant groups who had made up an important part of the Democratic coalition such as the Germans and Irish also voted for Harding in the election in reaction to their perceived persecution by the Wilson administration during the war.
During the campaign, rumors spread that Harding's great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black and that other blacks might be found in his family tree. In response, Harding's campaign manager said, "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood. The rumors, based perhaps on no more than local gossip, were circulated by William Estabrook Chancellor. The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, perhaps meaning to be dismissive: "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.
The election of 1920 was the first in which women could vote nationwide. It was also the first presidential election to be covered on the radio, thanks to the nation's first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Harding received 60% of the national vote and 404 electoral votes, an unprecedented margin of victory. Cox received 34% of the national vote and 127 electoral votes. Socialist Eugene V. Debs, campaigning from a federal prison, received 3% of the national vote. Debs was in prison for opposing Wilson's draft; despite the many political differences between the two candidates, when Harding became President, he pardoned Debs.
Harding pushed for the establishment of the Bureau of Veterans Affairs (later organized as the Department of Veterans Affairs), the first permanent attempt at answering the needs of those who had served the nation in time of War.
In April 1921, speaking before a joint session of Congress he called for peacemaking with Germany and Austria, emergency tariffs, new immigration laws, regulation of radio and trans cable communications retrenchment in government, tax reduction, repeal of wartime excess profits tax, reduction of railroad rates, promotion of agricultural interests, a national budget system, a great merchant marine and a department of public welfare. He also called for the abolition of lynching, but he did not want to make enemies in his own party and with the Democrats and did not fight for his program.
The Hardings visited their home community of Marion, Ohio once during the term when the city celebrated its Centennial during the first week of July. The President arrived on July 3, gave a speech to the community at the Marion County Fairgrounds on July 4, and left the following morning for other speaking commitments.
|The Harding Cabinet|
|President||Warren G. Harding||1921–1923|
|Vice President||Calvin Coolidge||1921–1923|
|Secretary of State||Charles Evans Hughes||1921–1923|
|Secretary of the Treasury||Andrew Mellon||1921–1923|
|Secretary of War||John W. Weeks||1921–1923|
|Attorney General||Harry M. Daugherty||1921–1923|
|Postmaster General||Will H. Hays||1921–1922|
|Harry S. New||1923|
|Secretary of the Navy||Edwin Denby||1921–1923|
|Secretary of the Interior||Albert B. Fall||1921–1923|
|Secretary of Agriculture||Henry C. Wallace||1921–1923|
|Secretary of Commerce||Herbert Hoover||1921–1923|
|Secretary of Labor||James J. Davis||1921–1923|
The most infamous scandal of the time was the Teapot Dome affair, which shook the nation for years after Harding's death. The scandal involved Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, who was convicted of accepting bribes and illegal no-interest personal loans in exchange for the leasing of public oil fields to business associates. (Absent the bribes and personal loans, the leases themselves were quite legal.) In 1931, Fall became the first member of a Presidential Cabinet to be sent to prison.
Thomas W. Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Jess Smith, personal aide to the Attorney General, destroyed papers and then committed suicide. Charles Forbes, Director of the Veterans Bureau, skimmed profits, earned large amounts of kickbacks, and directed underground alcohol and drug distribution. He was convicted of fraud and bribery and drew a two-year sentence. Charles Cramer, an aide to Charles Forbes, committed suicide.
No evidence to date suggests that Harding personally profited from these crimes, but he was apparently unable to stop them. "I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding told journalist William Allen White late in his presidency, "but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!
Historian Wyn Craig Wade, in his 1987 book The Fiery Cross, suggests that Harding had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps even having been inducted into the organization in a private White House ceremony. Evidence includes the taped testimony of one of the members of the alleged induction team, however beyond that it is scant at best and the theory is generally discounted.
In June 1923, Harding set out on a cross-country "Voyage of Understanding," planning to meet ordinary people and explain his policies. During this trip, he became the first president to visit Alaska. Rumors of corruption in his administration were beginning to circulate in Washington by this time, and Harding was profoundly shocked by a long message he received while in Alaska, apparently detailing illegal activities previously unknown to him. At the end of July, while traveling south from Alaska through British Columbia, he developed what was thought to be a severe case of food poisoning. He gave the final speech of his life to a large crowd at the University of Washington Stadium (now Husky Stadium) at the University of Washington campus in Seattle, Washington. A scheduled speech in Portland, Oregon was canceled. The President's train proceeded south to San Francisco. Arriving at the Palace Hotel, he developed pneumonia. Harding died of either a heart attack or a stroke at 7:35 p.m. on August 2, 1923. The formal announcement, printed in the New York Times of that day, stated that "A stroke of apoplexy was the cause of death." He had been ill exactly one week.
Naval physicians surmised that he had suffered a heart attack; however, this diagnosis was not made by Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, the Surgeon General, who was traveling with the presidential party. Mrs. Harding refused permission for an autopsy, which soon led to speculation that the President had been the victim of a plot, possibly carried out by his wife. Gaston B. Means, an amateur historian and gadfly, noted in his book The Strange Death of President Harding (1930) that the circumstances surrounding his death lent themselves to some suspecting he had been poisoned. Several individuals attached to him, personally, and politically, would have welcomed Harding's death, as they would have been disgraced in association by Means' assertion of Harding's "imminent impeachment". Although Means was later discredited for publicly accusing Mrs. Harding of the murder, enough doubts surround the President's death to keep reputable scholars open to the possibility of murder.
Following his death, Harding's body was returned to Washington, where it was placed in the East Room of the White House pending a state funeral at the United States Capitol. White House employees at the time were quoted as saying that the night before the funeral, they heard Mrs. Harding speak for more than an hour to her dead husband.
Harding was entombed in the receiving vault of the Marion Cemetery, Marion, Ohio, in August 1923. Following Mrs. Harding's death on November 21, 1924, she too was temporarily buried next to her husband. Both bodies were moved in December 1927 to the newly completed Harding Memorial in Marion, which was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. The lapse between the final interment and the dedication was partly because of the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal.
At the time of his death, Harding was also survived by his father. Harding and John F. Kennedy are the only two presidents to have predeceased their fathers. They are also the only two presidents to have been elected while serving as senators.
Rumors of the Harding love letters circulated through Marion, Ohio, for many years. However, their existence was not confirmed until 1968, when author Francis Russell gained access to them during his research for his book, The Shadow of Blooming Grove. The letters were in the possession of Phillips. Phillips kept the letters in a box in a closet and was reluctant to share them. Russell persuaded her to relent, and the letters showed conclusively that Harding had a 15-year relationship with Mrs. Phillips, who was then the wife of his friend James Phillips, owner of the local department store, the Uhler-Phillips Company. Mrs. Phillips was almost eight years younger than Harding. By 1915, she began pressing Harding to leave his wife. When he refused, she left her husband and moved to Berlin with her daughter Isabel. However, as the United States became increasingly likely to be drawn into World War I, Mrs. Phillips moved back to the U.S. and the affair reignited. Harding was now a U.S. Senator, and a vote was coming up on a declaration of war against Germany.
Mrs. Phillips threatened to go public with their affair if the Senator supported the war, but Harding defied her and voted for war, and Phillips did not reveal the scandal to the world. When Harding won the Republican Presidential nomination in 1920, he did not disclose the relationship to party officials. Once they learned of the affair, it was too late to find another nominee. To reduce the likelihood of a scandal breaking, the Republican National Committee sent Phillips and her family on a trip to Japan and paid them over $50,000. She also received monthly payments thereafter, becoming the first and only person known to have successfully extorted money from a major political party in the United States.
The letters Harding wrote to Mrs. Phillips were confiscated at the request of the Harding heirs, who requested and received a court injunction prohibiting their inclusion in Russell's book. Russell in turn left quoted passages from the letters as blank passages in protest against the Harding heirs' actions. The Harding-Phillips love letters remain under an Ohio court protective order that expires in 2023, 100 years after Harding's death, after which the content of the letters may be published or reviewed.
Besides Mrs. Phillips, Harding also reportedly had an affair with Nan Britton, the daughter of Harding's friend Dr. Britton of Marion. Britton's claim that he had fathered her child was widely circulated in the years just after Harding's death, and it is often cited as one of the best-known "facts" about Harding, but it has not been proven to the satisfaction of most historians.
Nan Britton's obsession with Harding started at an early age when she began pasting pictures of Senator Harding on her bedroom walls. According to Britton's book The President's Daughter, she and Senator Harding conceived a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, in January 1919, in his Senate office. Elizabeth Ann was born on October 22, 1919. Harding never met Elizabeth Ann but paid large amounts of child support. Harding and Britton, according to unsubstantiated reports, continued their affair while he was President, using a closet adjacent to the Oval Office for privacy. Following Harding's death, Britton unsuccessfully sued the estate of Warren G. Harding on behalf of Elizabeth Ann. Under cross-examination by Harding heirs' attorney, Grant Mouser (a former member of Congress himself), Britton's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies, and she lost her case. Britton married a Mr. Christian, who adopted Elizabeth Ann. In adulthood, Elizabeth Ann married Henry Blaesing and raised a family. During most of her life she shied from press coverage about her alleged birthright, and refused requests for interviews in her later years. She died on November 17, 2005, in Oregon.
Some suggest Harding had a form of aphasia.