James David Robenalt
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 416 pp., $27
In the annals of American history, one would be hard-pressed to find a more maligned presidential figure than Warren G. Harding. Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan admittedly come close (not to mention a few more recent Presidents), but due largely to a combination of posthumous scandals and tawdry allegations, the 29th President’s reputation went way south shortly after his death in 1923 and has remained there ever since. This is unfortunate. Though hardly a Washington or a Lincoln, Harding was not the loser history has made him out to be.
Or rather, the loser that historians have made him out to be. The revisionist work of New Deal historians was set on burying Harding along with his two Republican successors, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, starting in the mid-1930s. Beyond the academy, Harding’s record was shrouded in a thickening fog of factually questionable tall tales and political urban legends (such as the contention that Harding would not have died from his fatal illness had it not been for his wife’s infatuation with a quack homeopathic doctor). Few historians in recent decades have been willing to step forward to set the record straight. Indeed, with one notable exception—Robert H. Ferrell’s myth-busting The Strange Deaths of Warren G. Harding—there has been little scholarly work on the fallen President since the 1960s. As it now stands, Francis Russell’s rumor-filled The Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968) remains the best known and most widely read book on the subject.
A new book has arrived to finally shed a ray of positive light on Harding—quite a feat considering that it also chronicles his decade-long affair with an Ohio woman who may have been a German spy! The Harding Affair, by Cleveland-based attorney and author James David Robenalt, is the story of the future President’s romance with Carrie Phillips, the wife of Harding’s friend Jim Phillips.
The Harding/Phillips liaison has been public knowledge for decades, but The Harding Affair is unique thanks to the author’s access to largely unexamined correspondence between the two lovers. The letters themselves have a long and convoluted history. Discovered in Phillips’s home shortly after her death in 1960, they were promptly given to the Ohio Historical Society at the urging of Francis Russell. When Harding’s descendants got wind of this, they moved to take possession of this potentially embarrassing discovery. After several years of legal wrangling a compromise was reached: The letters were sent to the Library of Congress, where they were to remain sealed until 2014; photocopies were deposited with the Ohio Historical Society.
Using the copies, Robenalt sets the letters (106 in total, spread across 788 pages dating from 1905 to 1917) against the dawn of America’s entry into the Great War. He does so to frame a startling hypothesis: Phillips was a German agent, meaning that her proximity to (then) Senator Harding might have put sensitive U.S. intelligence within the Kaiser’s reach.
On its face, it is an interesting and not entirely implausible theory. Phillips was a vocal supporter (though less so than her husband Jim) of Imperial Germany and a vociferous critic of U.S. war policy. She and her daughter Isabelle, who may have been engaged to a relative of known German spy, Baroness Iona Zollner, resided off and on in Germany, and they also mysteriously spent time near Camp Upton, a U.S. military base in southern New York. But that’s about as far as the case against Phillips goes. There is no actual evidence that she acquired information from Harding or used their relationship to influence his votes in the Senate. No state secrets or classified information were ever divulged in Harding’s letters. Phillips, who was under the watch of the Bureau of Investigation, was never brought up on any charges. Although she apparently saved the letters to leave open the possibility of blackmailing Harding, one need not assert that she was a German spy to explain the fact. Thus, the espionage angle remains little more than a tantalizing historical “what if.”
Yet this does not negate the value of The Harding Affair. Thanks to the letters, and to Robenalt’s chronicle of his rise from small-town Ohio newspaper editor to national leader, the book provides a revelatory portrait of Harding that deviates considerably from the conventional wisdom. Most Americans will barely recognize the man who emerges from Robenalt’s book.
It has long been accepted that Harding was little more than a middling Midwestern politician given to gaseous oratory who emerged as the Republican presidential candidate in 1920 only because he was “the available man”, as one tome put it. Even the casual history buff has likely heard of other stories: Harding’s supposed mixed-race lineage, the infamous meeting in the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago where Republican kingmakers settled on his candidacy, his supposed Oval Office trysts, and his corrupt, incompetent cabinet. In Robenalt’s account, however, Harding emerges as a skillful and astute politician who called the shots when it came to his career, had a keen understanding of the issues of the day, and was a key figure in unifying a Republican Party that lay shattered by the progressive/conservative schism created by Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose challenge to President William Howard Taft.
And as Robenalt points out, Harding was also an active and accomplished Senator who fought waste and corruption and offered principled, if not always uncritical, support of President Woodrow Wilson’s war effort. (He thought the President’s crusade “to make the world safe for democracy” was in vain.) Harding’s gift for oratory put him in high demand as a speaker across the country and made him an immediate presidential contender upon entering the Senate in 1915.
Equally remarkable is how human and fragile Harding often appears. Depending on the status of his relationship with Phillips, Harding’s moods ranged from euphoria to depression to jealous rage. Robenalt even speculates that Harding’s decision to run for the Senate in 1914 was a mechanism to cope with the disappointment generated by a lull in the affair. He repeatedly offered to end his political career and abandon all presidential ambitions if it would make Phillips, who disdained his involvement in politics, happy. (Harding’s wife and future First Lady, Florence, is little more than a peripheral character in Robenalt’s tale.)
Robenalt’s is an intimate, often uncomfortable view into Harding’s mind and heart, and he often comes across as vulnerable in a way we don’t often see in our leaders. Still, given the nature of the material, Harding’s reputation as a philanderer is secure. The more R-rated letters among the cache, with their references to “matchless breasts” and recollections of shared “ecstasy”, would make even South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his Argentine paramour blush. (Maybe.) Certainly, these passages will appeal to those of a prurient interest, or to those who wish only to see Harding as a womanizer. They will find plenty here to perpetrate the myth that Harding won in 1920 only because of his sexual charm in the first election in which women could vote.
This part of Harding’s reputation is beyond redemption. But the correspondence may shoot down another myth about Harding: the story of Nan Britton, who, in her book The President’s Daughter (1928), claimed to have had an affair with Harding that resulted in the birth of a daughter. Robenalt compares dates and locations from Britton’s book to those mentioned in Harding’s letters. Some do not match; others match too well. The author theorizes that Britton, a young woman who, like Harding and Phillips, hailed from Marion, Ohio, may have based the logistics and details of her book on the letters. Britton was close in age to, and may have been a friend of, Phillips’s daughter, and could very well have had access to the correspondence—especially in a small town such as Marion where gossip spread quickly and doors were often left unlocked.
Either way, the Phillips affair does indeed display disturbing character flaws and a serious lack of judgment on Harding’s part. Harding continued to have assignations with Phillips even after learning she was being monitored by U.S. authorities. Of course, such flaws and bad judgment are characteristics he shared with several other men—Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, to name a few—who consistently rate among our greatest Presidents.
Robenalt never makes the case that Harding deserves to be ranked among such titans; that is not his book’s purpose. But he does enough to leave the reader yearning for a fuller and more comprehensive picture of Harding, and since the book ends a few years before his move to the White House, much is left untold. For example, there is the story of how Harding, by slashing tax rates and reducing government spending, halted the forgotten Depression of 1920–21 and ushered in an era of prosperity that would be unmatched until the 1950s. And there is, too, the fact that Harding had no knowledge or involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal. Contrary to claims of rampant corruption, with giants such as Andrew Mellon, Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s cabinet was one of the strongest, and most honest, in American history.
It is also worth mentioning that Harding, whose presidency is remembered as an isolationist retreat from the heroic foreign policy of the Wilson years, presided over not only the Washington Naval Conference, one of the first and most successful arms limitation efforts, but also designed a complex and subtle Asian diplomacy that stilled the roiled waters of the Pacific, as former German colonies and extraterritorial privileges in China were stabilized in new, balanced arrangements. This diplomacy, the brainchild of Secretary of State Hughes, was later pilloried for having set the stage for Japanese expansion, but in truth, the only problem with the arrangement was the U.S. failure to enforce its provisions, thanks to the austerity imposed by the Great Depression.
Harding’s presidency is often considered the beginning of an unwelcome conservative interlude between the enlightened Progressive and New Deal eras. Yet this myth ignores the fact that it was Harding who freed socialist leader Eugene Debs from prison, where he had been sent for daring to speak out against the Wilson Administration. Harding also supported universal suffrage and often spoke forcefully against racism. In a long-forgotten speech in Birmingham, Alabama, after encountering a hostile reaction for voicing support of the voting rights of African-Americans, he reminded his audience that “whether you like it or not, unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that equality.” It was also Harding who guided the country’s transition away from the polarization, paranoia and conflict of the closing years of the Wilson presidency, and whose death in office generated a national outpouring of sympathy not seen since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
This rejuvenated Warren G. Harding does not appear in Robenalt’s pages. Nonetheless, The Harding Affair is a revealing record of the man and is a welcome addition to the slender volume of quality work on Harding. The definitive history of this under-appreciated President and his times has yet to be written.