Friday A/V Club: We Could Use a Man Like Warren Harding Again
One Harding rumor confirmed, one Harding rumor refuted
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,
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.
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.)