Since I was a kid, President Harding has been considered the worst President in American history. He must have done some terrible things if he was besotted this honor over President Andrew Jackson, who was instrumental in the forced relocation of Native Americans. President Richard Nixon who is the only President to have resigned office because of the Watergate scandal. President Herbert Hoover did nothing literally after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 to help American citizens. President William H. Harrison served only 31 days. President George W. Bush took this country from a ‘lone superpower, and by the end of his terms, we suffered through economic, military, and cultural setbacks. Don’t be mad at the messenger- this not personal but all facts. So, let’s look into some of the reasons why Harding has worn this crown of shame for so long.
Warren G. Harding was born on Nov. 2, 1865, in Ohio. Both of his parents were doctors, and by all his accounts, he had a great childhood in spite of the fact that his nickname was ‘Winnie.’ At 14, he attended Ohio Central College and graduated with a B.S. degree in 1882. When Harding graduated, he moved to outside of Marion, Ohio, where he taught in a country schoolhouse for one term. That didn’t fit him, so he left and tried his hand at law, insurance sales, and journalism for a local newspaper. In 1884, he bought the Marion Star Newspaper with his friends, and they had decent success. Now, this is when things get good. In 1891, Harding married a divorcee named Florence Mabel King DeWolf, who was five years his senior and already had a 10-year-old son and plenty of money. She pursued Warren, and he ‘gave’ into her, even after her father threatened to kill him if he married his daughter. Why the threat of violence? Because it was rumored that Harding’s family had black ancestors, that was a ‘no-no’ for prominent white families.
Because of Florence’s business mind, Harding had a prosperous business, but it was his personality and loyalty to his employees that made him loveable. Politicians even respected him because his paper was impartial and evenhanded in its reporting. (We need our news outlets to take some notes on this.) By 1899, Harding won a seat with Ohio State Senate and served as the majority leader before winning the Lieutenant Governorship in 1903. In 1914, he won the Ohio Republican primary for Senator because his supporters claimed that his opponent, Attorney General Timothy Hogan, was a Catholic and would deliver Ohio to the Pope on a silver platter. Not the first time we see personal religious views used as a means of attack in politics, but it was an effective attack. Harding was indistinguishable in the Senate. He had very few enemies and many friends; he was considered the ‘good fellow’- that may be because he missed more sessions than he attended. Not a big deal; it’s what our current politicians do…but it was what debates Harding shied away from- the amendments to prohibition and suffrage to the U.S. Constitution. He even opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s introduction of the League of Nations.
Okay, so Harding wasn’t ‘available’ to be present for the amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding the right for women to vote- but interestingly, in this election, millions of women would vote for the first time. Maybe his opponent forgot to mention that Harding was passive on that fact? The nation was surprised when Harding was selected for the party’s nomination because he was not known for anything. But as Queen Elizabeth the 2nd is known for saying, ‘doing nothing is exactly what we are supposed to do’ (don’t believe me, watch The Crown season 1,2,3 on Netflix). The platform for the candidacy? Harding conducted a front-porch campaign in which he spoke in overused cliché, urging a “return to normalcy” after the hardships of the world war and the struggle over the League of Nations, and promised higher protective tariffs and new immigration requirements. Why does every politician keep talking about ‘normalcy’? This country is anything but normal. But that spoke to the American population who were needed stability in their lives, much like us, wouldn’t you think? Interestingly, the ‘worst president’ victory in that election remains the most significant popular vote in history.
If he was such a popular president- why is he considered the ‘worst’? Great question! President Harding did have very progressive views on civil rights and race, but he was not a decisive President. He was more like Col Sanders for KFC. He was a ceremonial president- not a leader. He used the Presidency much like he did when he was in the Senate- as a way to pass time on a boring day. He was also unable to control his cabinet because he would avoid issues at all costs- even when rumors of illegal activity within his own walls was hitting the newspapers.
Though Harding himself was at no time implicated in any misconduct, his cabinet was entangled in controversy. For example, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil corporations in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. As a result, he spent a little under a year in prison. In addition, Attorney General Harry Daugherty was suspected of selling liquor permits during Prohibition along with several other officials that took bribes.
This is when things get really good, bear with me….
I have no trouble with my enemies, But my damn friends … they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.
And then he gets caught cheating on his wife! Not the ‘caught’ that we are used to today…iPhone videos or secret Facebook accounts. No! Harding wrote to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, on official Senate stationery between 1910 and 1920. He even referred to his penis as ‘Jerry’ in code in case someone read his letters. My God, man, you are President of the United States writing on official paper, paid by the taxpayers, and you thought you weren’t going to get caught? How do we know this? Because in 2014, his letters were finally released by the Library of Congress. Just listen, you got to read this:
Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all.
It is rumored that he won the Republication nomination in 1920, largely due to the fact that the party paid Carrie Fulton Phillips $25,000 to stay quiet, along with a rumored $5,000 a month allowance. Hush, hush money was expensive even then.
Now on to the death- Harding was by all accounts a popular president. He had a love of alcohol (even though he voted for Prohibition) and his mistresses. Halfway through his third year as President, Harding died suddenly from a ‘heat attack.’ President Harding had been shaken by the corruption scandle that was hitting the newspapers and he and his wife decided that this was the right time for him to hit the road and ensure the American population of his dedication to the country and explain his policies. They decided that the trip should focus on the West Coast and Alaska (which at the time was not yet a state.) On his way back home on the train from Alaska- President Harding becomes ill, which is at first diagnosed as food poisoning. President Harding’s doctors were anxious enough about his health to divert his train to San Francisco. Harding was able to walk off the train into a limousine, which took him to the Palace Hotel.
Doctors crowded together over the President for several days. Finally, Harding seemed to rally on August 2, but he slumped over in his bed sometime after 7 p.m. while his poor wife read to him and died almost immediately.
Doctors said in published accounts that Harding died from the effects of a stroke. No autopsy was completed on the body of the President at his wife’s request. Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, who was also the President of Stanford University, was at the hotel when Harding arrived for treatment, and he recalled the events that followed in his memoirs:
We shall never know exactly the immediate cause of President Harding’s death since every effort that was made to secure an autopsy met with complete and final refusal.
Wilbur said a fuming community, upset with the unexpected death of a popular president, took out its irritation on the doctors:
We were belabored and attacked by newspapers antagonistic to Harding, and by cranks, quacks, antivivisectionists, nature healers, the Dr. Albert Abrams electronic-diagnosis group, and many others. We were accused of starving the President to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives. We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice.
“It was a heart attack,” said historian Robert Ferrell in a 1996 interview with C-SPAN, discussing his book, “The Strange Deaths of President Harding.” The suddenness of his passing ruled out a stroke, he said.
Another theory, from presidential biographer Carl Anthony, is that Harding’s favored doctor, Charles Sawyer, gave the president “purgatives” to rush his recovery. He believes the medications issued by Sawyer, who wasn’t a qualified physician, may have intensified Harding’s heart condition. “The evidence makes plausible that (Sawyer) accidentally provoked the death of the president with a final, fatal overdose of his mysterious purgatives,” Anthony said in a 1998 interview promoting a book on Florence Harding, “pushing the man’s already weakened heart into cardiac arrest.”
Harding’s wife, Florence, chose to skip an autopsy for her husband and have his body embalmed one hour after his death nourished the rumor mill in 1923. Later in 1930, a former Harding administration member published a book claiming that Florence Harding poisoned her husband. Word rapidly spread that Mrs. Harding, the last individual to be with him that evening, had poisoned him to avert him from being brought up on charges of corruption that soon overwhelmed his administration. A scandalous book published in 1930 detailed the accusations against her. Her rejection of an autopsy of the President only nourished the rumors. Harding left the bulk of his estate, valued at $850,000, to his wife.
The humiliations involving Harding kept coming after his death, including claims he had fathered an illegitimate daughter in the White House with his suspected mistress, Nanna Britton. The Teapot Dome scandal also consumed much of the initial days of the administration of Calvin Coolidge, the vice president who succeeded Harding.
What about Harding’s love child? Glad you asked. Following Harding’s death, Nanna wrote what is considered to be the first kiss-and-tell book. In The President’s Daughter, published in 1927, she claimed she had been Harding’s mistress during his presidency and named him the father of her daughter, Elizabeth Ann (1919–2005). One famous passage told of their having sex in a coat closet in the executive office of the White House.
According to Britton, Harding had promised to support their daughter, but after his sudden death in 1923, his wife, Florence, refused to honor the obligation. Britton insisted that she wrote her book to earn money to support her daughter and champion illegitimate children’s rights. She brought a lawsuit (Britton v. Klunk). Still, she could not provide any concrete evidence and was shaken by the vicious personal attacks made by Congressman Grant Mouser during the cross-examination, which cost her the case. Britton died in 1991 in Sandy, Oregon, where she had lived during the last years of her life. She insisted until her death that Harding was her daughter’s father. Twenty-four years after her death, in 2015, Ancestry.com confirmed through DNA testing of descendants of Harding’s brother and Britton’s grandchildren that Elizabeth was indeed Harding’s daughter.
There were also scandals involving other government agencies that followed after Harding’s death. But it was the numerous stories about Harding’s illness and sudden death that stimulated discussion for decades. Harding hadn’t been in good health when he took off for a West Coast tour that some people saw as a step in laying the groundwork for a 1924 re-election campaign. He was here in Alaska during that tour, the first U.S. President to ever visit this great state.
There we have it- corruption, affairs, an inactive President who allowed his members to run amuck, a pissed-off wife, bad seafood, and an evil heart. I am still unsure how this ensnares President Harding as the worst President ever, but he keeps drawing the short stick by Historians. They say that the rumor of his wife poisoning him was debunked, but I ask you…do you believe that?
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on your own. There is no way I could fit almost 25 years of historical moments into a single blog- but I had fun researching the Harding Sandal. There is so much more to Harding than being the ‘worst’ President, and I will include some fantastic books down below if you want to learn more about his life and death. I have also included a pretty cool clip that I found on YouTube.
And remember- be Great at something you are Good at!
The Strange Death of President Harding by Gaston B. Means, May Dixon Thacker, et al. | Sep 25, 2008
Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony | Sep 1, 1998
1920: The Year of the Six Presidents by David Pietrusza | Apr 21, 2009
The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War by James David Robenalt and John W. Dean | Sep 1, 2009