Who knew the true story of Warren Harding’s presidency could be so sad and interesting? Warren went from being an aw-shucks editor of the Marion, Ohio newspaper to being maneuvered into office (first Senator of Ohio, then President) by Harry Daugherty, the conniving and scandal-inviting grafter. The question of Harding’s black ancestry is raised more than once (and denied). Once Harding is President, he takes his responsibilities seriously, and begins learning about the world and its ills, arguing for civil rights, labor laws, global disarmament. His theme is very much discouraged by the old guard, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, the perpetual presidential-office seeker. Harding’s friends begin taking advantage of their newfound privileges immediately, transferring the Teapot Dome oil reserves from the Navy to the Dept of the Interior, where rights are handed over to a civilian in exchange for $250k. There is also scandal involving bribe-taking for booze makers during prohibition, and a Veteran’s Hospital graft scheme.
Throughout the story, the events are recreated by one Nan Britton, Harding’s young lover from his hometown of Marion. She describes stalking him from an early age, contributing a poem to the paper, bicycling by his house, spying on him in his offices. In her twenties, she follows him to Washington where he has just been elected Senator. Right before Harding embarks on the journey across the country (where he will end up dying in San Francisco), Nan becomes pregnant.
The author notes that in 1931 Nan Britton published a best-seller, “The President’s Daughter,” telling about her life with Harding and doing her best to salvage his reputation. Royalties from the book opened a home for unwed mothers. Her book contains quotations from several of his speeches, including this from a July 21, 1923 speech shortly before his death: “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask– what may I do for my country?”
Harding seems the forgotten predecessor of People’s Presidents such as Kennedy and Clinton.
Recommended by Old Bean