I had driven across Ohio to explore President Garfield’s abode and the venture opened my eyes to the state’s bounty of presidential homes (#2 behind Virginia). It would only require a modest diversion on the return, to drop in on the residence of Warren G. Harding, another President from the state, though a lack of preparation posed a conflict. Typically I would have read a biography on Harding and a quick blurb on the site, but this was pure impulse. With scant sense of Harding beyond a vague notion he was among the worst presidents and knowing nothing about his hometown of Marion, Ohio, I pressed on. Travel is all about striking out and I thought this might be constructive, experiencing a new destination without expectations or preconceived notions.
The tour was preceded by a desperate effort on my part to conjure memories of Harding. Thoughts lingered of an administration plagued by misconduct and only the “Teapot Dome Scandal” came to mind, without recall of any specifics surrounding the disgrace. Thankfully travel is around to offer education and class began as soon as I entered the small building indicated as the place to purchase entrance.
Though tiny, the admissions office also housed a small museum presenting history and artifacts. My first lesson would be learning this was a “Sears Catalog Home” which Harding purchased for $1,000 to serve as a workspace for newspapermen during his run for the presidency. Warren conducted a ‘front porch campaign’ in the mould of James Garfield and as Marion had a train station, it proved wildly successful. Harding only campaigned for three months before the election, but an estimated 600,000 folks stopped by to hear the candidate pontificate from his porch during that narrow window.
A second lesson was gained inside the Press House about the value of being impromptu. The attendant accepting my payment informed me that two weeks from now the Harding Home would be closed for more than a year to undergo a massive restoration effort. The overhaul will spruce Warren’s place up in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his election to the presidency in 1920 (grand re-opening scheduled for May 4th, 2019). In addition to repairing what is already around, the master plan anticipates a significant expansion: a ‘presidential center’ will be erected to serve as a visitor center and museum, a home for archives and space for hosting events.
Such ambitious plans suggested folks associated with the Harding Home were not abashed by any tarnished reputation, so let us step inside to see what follows. The tour is nicely done, even if a bit like walking through your grandparent’s home. Crammed with knickknacks, there is nothing stupefying, though I will attest for the guide’s enthusiasm: he was well versed and fervent about Harding. I rapidly came up to speed on Warren’s life story.
Harding’s essence would center about a failing local newspaper in Marion which he purchased with a friend while still a teenager. Through perseverance and pluck, not to mention the benefit of a growing community, the paper would ultimately prove successful. In his mid-twenties, Warren courted Florence Kling, the strong-willed daughter of the strong-willed wealthiest man in Marion. Florence was five years older than Warren and had eloped as a youngster, ultimately bearing a son and returning to Marion after getting a divorce. Their wedding was nothing short of a miracle. Not only did father and daughter butt heads, Warren frequently attacked her daddy in editorials before (and after) the betrothal.
Covering politics for the newspaper would eventually lead Harding to run for public office. Handsome and a good speaker, Warren eventually won a seat as Ohio’s Senator, the platform from which he would win the presidential bid in 1920. All these points were gleaned from the guide’s running dialogue as we roamed the home. Clearly, up to speed on all things Harding, the guide was a bit biased – despite acknowledging Warren’s extramarital affairs he commented (twice!) how Florence suffered from Bright’s Disease and was “sexually unavailable” as if that justified everything.
Upon returning home I would seek a second opinion, but the question of Harding’s reputation would remain unresolved. The biography I checked out from my local library would lead one to believe Warren was the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, the book had been authored by John Dean (of Watergate infamy), not someone I would deem a reliable political critic. I subsequently learned Dean was a native of Marion, so the prejudice became more palpable. Between the tour and the book, however, my opinion was shifted in a positive direction (though a chasm still exists between personal perspective and the superhero portrayed in Dean’s bio).
My amended opinion of Harding still paled in comparison to public perception immediately after his death in office. Only a mile from the home is the magnificent Harding Memorial – a marble temple honouring the Harding’s’ request to be laid to rest in the great outdoors. Funding for the monument came from nationwide donations after Harding died in office – revealing his infamy arose somewhat later.
Truth be told, Harding was a popular president and successful. After winning the election by the largest margin up to that time, Harding took the helm of a ship reeling from a post-war recession and turned it around. Though I do not agree with all of his decisions, his commitments to develop the highway system and commercial aviation were certainly prescient. I always associated prosperity to this time (the “Roaring Twenties”) and had no idea the economy was in the tank when Harding stepped in and he clearly contributed to a turnaround. Most redeeming was Harding’s stand for anti-lynching legislation and requesting cabinet members to seek positions for African Americans.
Serious tarnishing of Harding’s reputation would not begin until well after he died of a heart attack while in office. The aforementioned Teapot Dome Scandal would prove a major culprit but seems relatively benign in comparison with modern shenanigans and Harding was not a party to it. It seems Harding’s downfall was his “good old boy” nature and placing too much trust in friends. One of those was Albert Fall, a US Senator from New Mexico who was appointed Secretary of the Interior. Fall accepted bribes to award petroleum leases at bargain rates without competitive bidding: one of those being at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Several years after Harding passed away, Fall became the first cabinet member ever sentenced to prison.
Infidelity was another taint dragging Harding down. A former mistress, Nan Britton, would publish a book titled “The President’s Daughter” in 1927 which detailed a long romance and asserted her child was Harding’s daughter. Britton’s objective was seeking financial support, though she wound up facing public ridicule for the most part. Only in 2015 did DNA testing validate Harding was indeed, daddy. More reprehensible was Warren’s affair with his married neighbour, Carrie Phillips. Phillips was a German sympathizer who threatened to expose the romance if Harding (a US Senator at this time) voted in favour of America entering the First World War. Shockingly, the Republican Party paid for Phillips’ to tour Southeast Asia and annual hush money. Love letters between the two were recently part of legal action and the settlement was that these not be made public until the 100th anniversary of Harding’s death. Stayed tuned when 2023 rolls around!
So the jury continues to debate the Harding legacy. In the meantime I was thankful I went with instinct and visited when I did – I recommend this site once it reopens because the long closure suggests a serious makeover and good things on the horizon. Whether this fanfare will cause Harding’s stature to bounce back is another matter, but dropping in reminded me of the transitory nature of reputations. Opinions always seem to be in flux, and touring this particular presidential home reinforced how today’s cherished heroes may find themselves in the doghouse tomorrow.