Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

The Making of a President

To understand the strange circumstances of his death, it is necessary to know something of Harding himself. How could he have assembled such a loony group around him? If he committed suicide, what would have driven him to it? If he was murdered, who had reason for killing him and what was their motive?

It is difficult not to treat the story of Harding frivolously. He was a frivolous man, well meaning, but nonetheless a man who inspires irreverence.

The life and presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding is essentially a comic story. Harding had many admirable traits --- kindness, charm, generosity --- but he was basically an inept man, without many talents. If it had not been for his steely, extremely capable wife, and a few stalwart members of his cabinet, he would have had no presidential accomplishments at all. From the time of his entry into politics in Ohio to the time of his death, his career can best be described as slapstick, a sort of political gang that couldnt shoot straight.

Yet the Harding story is, in its own way, sad. Besides the buffoonery of his days in the Senate and the White House, there is the tale of a man in over his head, trusting of untrustworthy associates, trying to do his best.

Harding was born in 1865 in the farming village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. His family moved to the somewhat larger town of Marion, Ohio, when he was a child. While his father was a doctor, his was essentially a farming family. He grew up with the usual farm chores of late 19th Century Middle America, did reasonably well in school, and went off to a small Ohio college. After graduating, he taught school for a year, and then left the demanding teaching profession for the newspaper business. Together with two other young men, he bought a local weekly, the Marion Star. Soon, he was the sole owner, and spent his adult life, other than his career in politics, as a publisher.

He was not, strictly speaking, a newspaperman. He wrote editorials, most of them loyally Republican in an otherwise Democratic county, but most of his efforts were in seeking advertising. He was a typical, small town glad-hander, a quintessential Midwestern Rotarian, a tall, handsome young man on Main Street chatting up the local citizens. He was clearly a politician in the making. A Marion booster, he played coronet in the town band, frequented the roller-skating rink, and played poker. Sinclair Lewis could not have invented a more typical character in his novels about small town America.

While still in his 20s, Harding became an orator. In the ornate style of the time, he gave speeches at county and state Republican conventions. They were noted for their William Jennings Bryan puffery, high-sounding orations without much comprehensible content.

Amos Kling's home
Amos Kling's home
 

At about this time, the daughter of Marion s richest man, Amos Kling, spotted the handsome, confident, and personable young man, and set her cap for him. Her name was Florence Kling DeWolfe. She was five years older than Harding, had recently been divorced (albeit from a common-law marriage) and was a piano teacher. She was smart, tough, and reasonably good-looking. She had given birth to a child from her brief marriage, and had given the child to her stingy, mean-spirited father to raise. She met Harding at the skating rink, and within a year, they were married. It was a marriage that would make the career of Warren G. Harding.

Harding home in Marion, Ohio
Harding home in Marion, Ohio
 

Florence  took over the business operations of the Star, and capably directed the papers fortunes. In the meantime, Harding was free to bloviate (as he called his speeches and conversations) and become a town fixture. His good nature and charm overcame the vicious rumors spread by his father-in-law, the most damning of which was that the Harding family had Negro blood. Florence and her husband were estranged from her father for more than seven years after their marriage.

With Florence s encouragement, Harding ran for the Ohio State Senate and won. He served two terms, followed by a term as lieutenant governor, and then was defeated when he ran for governor. A fundamentally lazy man whose approach to politics was conciliation and compromise, Harding did not mind returning to Marion and his role as newspaper publisher.

Warren G. Harding and the Duchess
Warren G. Harding and the "Duchess"
 

During these early years of their marriage, Harding began his long career as an adulterer, and fathered the first of his illegitimate children. He and Florence never had children. She was, as he said many times over the years, his partner, his best pal, his Duchess. Not, however, the mother of his children. Hardings life is resplendent with adulteries and one-night stands, a compulsion that he maintained almost to his last days.

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson
During his service as state senator, Harding, who certainly looked presidential, was noticed by a fevered Ohio politician, Harry Daugherty. Daugherty recognized that Harding could very well be his political meal ticket, and that someday he could guide this tall, good-looking, and charming boob to the greatest heights of political achievement. Between the Duchess and Daugherty, Hardings trajectory to the presidency was a sure thing --- at least Daugherty thought so. Daugherty was a schemer and a crook, but he knew a successful politician when he saw one.

After a hiatus from public life, Daugherty and the Duchess successfully brought Harding to the U.S. Senate in 1914. As always, Harding was well liked by his colleagues. His policy of conciliation and compromise was as successful in Washington as it had been in Columbus. One could always find Harding on both sides of an issue, and could expect him to wait until the last moment before casting his lot with one side or the other. During his six years as a senator, the Hardings enjoyed their Washington, D.C., life, except for the snubs that Florence had to endure from other senators wives. However, one day she would pay them back.

Ohio Governor James Cox
Ohio Governor James Cox
Harding enjoyed being a senator. Yet Daugherty and others saw him as the Republican hope for the presidency, particularly in the sad last days of the Woodrow Wilson administration. At first, the Duchess was reluctant to encourage her husband on this last, great quest. Her reluctance was reinforced by the prediction of her astrological adviser, Madame Marcia, who foresaw in the stars the presidency for Harding, but added that he would not live out his term of office.

Eventually, Daugherty persuaded Florence. The strategy was to make the well-liked Harding every delegates second choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago. The strategy worked. Slowly, the strength of the front three candidates eroded and late in the convention Warren G. Harding became the Republican nominee for president on the seventh ballot. Legend has it that Harding became the nominee after a long meeting in a smoke-filled room, but the reality was that influential Republicans came and went from a hotel suite trying to figure out how to break the convention deadlock. Daugherty traded many favors and promised a number of political appointments as he seduced delegates from the three front-runners.

Vice President Calvin Coolidge
Vice President Calvin Coolidge
Then came the campaign --- and a strange one it was. James Cox, the Democratic candidate and the Governor of Ohio, traveled the length and breadth of the country, while Harding conducted a front porch campaign from his home in Marion, just as William McKinley had done in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1896.

Droves came to hear orations by the candidate and, with a strategy developed by Florence, entertainment personalities (for the first, but not for the last, time in American politics) flocked to Marion to endorse the Republican candidate. Harding won the election handily. Warren G. Harding was now president and the colorless Calvin Coolidge, his eventual successor, his vice president.

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