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July 22, 2014 7:24 am

LAWRENCE AT LARGE: History has been too hard on Harding

Written by Tom Lawrence

President Warren Gamaliel Harding is back in the news.

I’ve been waiting more than 30 years to write that sentence. It feels good when patience is rewarded.

Harding is hitting the headlines not for his years as president — the Republican from Ohio was elected in 1920 and died in 1923 — nor for the scandals that cropped up at the end of his life and have stained his reputation for 80 years.

No, Harding is being written about and is the subject of gibes from late-night TV comics because of a series of love letters he wrote to one of his mistresses. They are finally being made public.

Harding wrote the letters, which are apparently sizzling, especially for their time, to Carrie Fulton Phillips between 1910-20. During that time, he was the state’s lieutenant governor and was then elected to the Senate.

In 1920, when he was the compromise candidate of the deadlocked Republican Party — his nomination is where the phrase “smoke-filled room” came from — party leaders decided to get Phillips out of the country. They feared her because of her affair with Harding as well as her strident support for Germany, which was especially unpopular following World War I.

Phillips and her husband were given a pile of money and asked to head to Asia; she also received a promise of lifetime payments. The GOP insiders made the deal, and Harding swept to victory, pledging “normalcy” to a war-weary public.

His presidency started with promise. Harding supported civil rights and backed an anti-lynching bill. He backed the eight-hour day for workers and signed a child welfare law.

His most acclaimed efforts were in hosting a naval conference that led to a sweeping arms limitation pact. Most Americans admired him, even if he was drinking bootleg whiskey, playing cards and “seeing” women other than his stern wife, whom was called “The Duchess.”

Hey, he was a newspaper guy, a publisher and owner of The Marion Daily Star. They have been known to raise a glass and some hell from time to time — or so I hear.

I wrote a paper on Harding as a senior in college and read several books on him. It was at the height of his unpopularity, but I discovered that much of the disdain for him was unmerited. His accomplishments were under-recognized.

The best of the books on Harding then and now is “The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding and his Times,” named for his hometown. It said Harding was haunted by rumors that one of his ancestors was black — which caused the so-called “shadow” over his life and career.

Harding himself was unsure, as he told a friend: “How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.”

Some have dubbed Harding the first black, or part-black president. One thing is sure — he is the black sheep of American presidents, thanks to historians’ assessments and public condemnation of his flawed character.

I think it’s a bum rap, for the most part.

Of course, there were some problems that cannot be ignored. Some of Harding’s friends — the so-called “Ohio Gang” — saw their public service as a chance to cash in. They took bribes, sold pardons and paroles and allowed oilmen to tap into petroleum reserves inWyoming in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal, named for the rock formation atop the supply.

Harding learned of the intrigues and it troubled him, as he told the famed editor William Allen White.

“I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight,” he raged. “But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”

The stress of serving as president, dealing with a flood of corruption and his years with a secret private life may have been too much strain for Harding.

He was reportedly suffering from coronary trouble, and a hectic tour of the West, including becoming the first president to visit Canada and Alaska, was too much for him. He died in a San Francisco hotel room on Aug. 2, 1923.

Some have speculated his wife, weary of his shenigans, poisoned him. I doubt it, but it has been written and discussed at length.

Soon after his death, the floodgates opened. Harding had been mourned by the nation and buried in a manner that rivaled Abraham Lincoln’s farewell, but within a few years he was denounced and ridiculed.

A book written by another of his female friends, Nan Britton, told even more juicy tales. Britton’s book was a sensation, in part because she claimed he fathered her child. Historians are divided on this, and family members on both sides have refused to allow DNA tests.

Francis Russell, who wrote “The Shadow of Blooming Grove,” dug up a lot of the dirt and was given Harding’s letters to Phillips. A lawsuit from the former president’s relatives blocked publication of them until now.

Because of all of this, Harding has been ranked at the bottom of presidential lists for decades. Others belong there — Tyler, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant and arguably George W. Bush.

Finally, new assessments of Harding’s presidency are starting to be written and he is rising in the ranks. His public performance, while flawed, had its good moments and I am glad that is being recognized.

But on July 29, the letters will be released and Harding’s sex life will once again become a topic of public humor. I don’t care — I still think Ol’ Warren did his damnedest and was a better president than many others whose private lives remained that way.

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