Friday A/V Club: We Could Use a Man Like Warren Harding Again

One Harding rumor confirmed, one Harding rumor refuted


Love child! Take a look at me!
Library of Congress

DNA tests have reportedly confirmed one longstanding rumor about Warren Harding, America's least bad president of the 20th century, while putting another rumor to rest.

First the confirmation: It looks like Harding did indeed have a love child with one of his mistresses, Nan Britton. Britton claimed to have carried on an affair with Harding in her 1928 book The President's Daughter, published five years after Harding died in office. The accusation's effect on Harding's reputation can be seen in a passage from Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday, the book that may have done more than any other text to shape Americans' memories of the '20s. Harding's private life, Allen writes,

"For the cover, our designer came up with what he calls 'the scribble-scrabble approach.'"
Elizabeth Ann Guild

was one of cheap sex episodes; as one reads the confessions of his mistress, who claims that as President he was supporting an illegitimate baby born hardly a year before his election, one is struck by the shabbiness of the whole affair: the clandestine meetings in disreputable hotels, in the Senate Office Building (where Nan Britton believed their child to have been conceived), and even in a coat-closet in the executive offices of the White House itself. (Doubts have been cast upon the truth of the story told in The President's Daughter, but is it easy to imagine any one making up out of whole cloth a supposedly autobiographical story compounded of such ignoble adventures?) Even making due allowance for the refraction of Harding's personality through that of Nan Britton, one sees with deadly clarity the essential ordinariness of the man, the commonness of his "Gee, dearie" and "Say, you darling," his being swindled out of a hundred dollars by card sharpers on a train ride, his naive assurance to Nan, when detectives broke in upon them in a Broadway hotel, that they could not be arrested because it was illegal to detain a Senator while "en route to Washington to serve the people." Warren Harding's ambitious wife had tailored and groomed him into outward respectability and made a man of substance of him; yet even now, after he had reached the White House, the rowdies of the Ohio gang were fundamentally his sort. He had risen above them, he could mingle urbanely with their superiors, but it was in the smoke filled rooms of the house in H Street that he was really most at home.

The flipside of this is that Harding rolled back Woodrow Wilson's war state, releasing Eugene Debs and other political prisoners; was pretty good on civil rights, making a push for an anti-lynching bill; reduced taxes; advanced international disarmament; and adopted fiscal policies that allowed the country to quickly weather the slump of 1921. His presidency had its problems—several of his appointees were corrupt, he erected new barriers to trade and immigration, and he sent federal troops to suppress a strike in West Virginia—but all in all, I have to prefer the small-town ordinariness that Allen mocked over the messianic ambition of the men who typically get praised as great presidents.

This would be a great band name.
Helga M. Rogers

On to the other rumor. The New York Times reports that the DNA tests "also found that President Harding had no ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, answering another question that has intrigued historians. When Harding ran for president in 1920, segregationist opponents claimed he had 'black blood.'" This news comes as a bit of a blow to me, if only because Harding's alleged African ancestry played a role in one of my favorite novels, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.

Are there any Harding mysteries left? Well, there's the dubious tale that he was secretly inducted into the Ku Klux Klan in the White House Green Room. That claim is hard to credit in light of Harding's public attitude toward the Klan (he accused the group of "misguided zeal and unreasoning malice") and his general support for civil rights, but it occasionally surfaces in respectable historical texts.

And then there are the persistent conspiracy theories about Harding's death. The most common is the notion, put forward in Gaston Means' 1930 book The Strange Death of President Harding, that the president was poisoned by a jealous first lady. But there is also the more outré position described in The 103rd Ballot, Robert K. Murray's book about the Democratic Party convention of 1924. "When Harding died in 1923," Murray mentions in passing, "some witless citizens were even willing to believe that he had expired from hypnotic waves generated by the minds of Jesuit telepaths."

Here is some newsreel footage from British Pathé following Harding's death. It doesn't say anything about Vatican mind control, but I'm sure a committed believer will be able to find what he wants by creatively reading between the lines:

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. Then there’s “Little Bill:”…..ttle-bill/

    1. Don’t forget that a young man that was possibly Obama’s son was killed a few years ago by a White Hispanic. Said so himself.

  2. How do Harding and Coolidge compare? I had always assumed Coolidge was the least worst, with Harding second, but Coolidge did inherit a lot of good policies. Never actually looked into either of them much.

    1. I put Harding ahead of Coolidge. Mostly because Coolidge’s immigration restrictionism was worse than Harding’s—he signed the awful Immigration Act of 1924—but for various other reasons as well, such as the steps his administration took re: the regulation of radio. (It’s tempting to just blame Herbert Hoover for those, since he was the cabinet member who took the lead there. But Coolidge appointed Hoover, and Coolidge eventually signed the Radio Act of 1927, so Coolidge can’t escape all the blame.)

      1. Have I mentioned lately that I flew w Herbert Hoover?

      2. Harding may have wanted to lower taxes and spending, but it is my understanding Coolidge is the one who actually made it happen, both as VP and President. Constant dogged attention to detail, and a willingness to veto relentlessly, makes Coolidge my favorite president of the 20th Century. And it doesn’t hurt that he was scrupulously honest, and stayed at home for sex, unlike most of the rest.

  3. One of his best moves was to choose Calvin Coolidge.Both rolled back the war and tax state.What is the chance someone with their record would be elected now? It’s all ‘what are you going to do for me and do to someone else I hate’ now.Hoover,FDR and Truman tried to rid the country of free markets.Many dems forget that FDR ran against Hoover’s big gov and spending and reversed course as soon as he was sworn in.Truman would have done a lot of damage if not for congress.That will not happen now.

    1. What’s up with your spacebar? You might need to consider laying off on the xHamster for awhile.

    2. Remember the push to rehabilitate or burnish Truman’s reput’n ~30 yrs. ago? What was behind that?

  4. Isn’t black blood a sign of the bubonic plague?

  5. Who was the worst POTUS of the 2th C. judged by attempted or credibly willed & demonstrated mischief, both successful & unsuccessful attempts added up? That’s a toughie. It brings Truman into the same class as FDR, JFK into the same class as LBJ, Nixon into a worse class than Carter.

    1. Wilson- class of his of his own

      2nd tier- LBJ, FDR, and Nixon in some order. (that’s mine)

      3rd tier- Can’t decide between Teddy and GHWB,

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