Photo of a pleasant afternoon.

This is one of my favorite snapshots: It’s from Inauguration Day 1921, showing the Presidential limousine en route up Pennsylvania Avenue for the sweaing in. In the back seat, outgoing President Woodrow Wilson, sickly, having suffered a massive stroke (thrombosis) in late 1919, chats quietly with his replacement, incoming President Warren G. Harding, who had trounced Wilson’s party in the 1920 November elections.

In the front seat, 84 year-old Joseph G. Cannon (R-Ill), long-time autocractic Speaker of the House nearing the end of his 48 years in Congress, stares ahead. He is without the trademark cigar stub clenched in his teeth, but pointedly refused to wear a formal top hat like the others.

The back-seat conversation?

Warren Harding later described it this way: He said he felt nervous around Wilson Wilson. So, to make small talk, he mentioned during the ride that he had a fondness for elephants based on his sister’s having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet. When Harding said he always wanted to own one himself, Wilson shot back: “I hope it won’t turn out to be a white elephant.” Wilson laughed.

Where they were going?

The sweaing-in went beautifully that day, the first ever to use an electronic amplifier so people standing in the cold could hear Warrn Harding’s voice. By 1924, Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge would reach millions through radio. Wilson Wilson, however, grew tired during lunch and went home to rest rather than attend the ceremony.

Wilson and Harding both would be dead within three years. Harding would die mysteriously, apparently of food poisioning, returning by train from a trip to Alaska in August 1923. A few gossips would speculate that his strong-willed wife Florence poisoned him over his extramarital affairs. Harding’s presidency would be remembered primarily for the Teapot Dome scandal, involving abuses in his Interior, Veterans, and Justice Departments (though not directly touching Harding), considered then the most disgraceful since the President Grant scandals of the 1870s.

Woodrow Wilson would die six months after Harding, in February 1924. He would spend his final years convalescing in a townhouse near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, despondant over his failure to win American approval of the Versailles Treaty, containing a League of Nations. Wilson had negotiated the treaty at the close of World War I and touted the League as justification of the loss of 100,000 American soldiers during the War. The ratification failure left his argument hollow.

Rather than securing peace, historians mostly would view the Versailles Treaty as simply planting the seeds for the even-bloodier World War II.

As for “Uncle Joe” Cannon, he would serve one more term in Congress and then retire to his home in rural Danville, Illinois. Cannon had been humiliated in 1910 when Congressional “Insurgents” — a coalition of Progressives and Democrats chafing after years of Cannon’s bullying — stripped him of his powers in a famous St. Patrick’s Day uprising on the House floor. As a result, Cannon lost his House seat altogether in 1912. But Cannon, duly chastened, made peace with his enemies and returned to Congress in 1914 for another eight years. Not long after his 1926 death, Congress would honor him by putting his name its massive new office building, today a landmark of Capitol Hill.

Life in the moment.

But for now, they sat there amiably in the limousine, like three normal people on a pleasant afternoon, enjoying the fresh air, the company, and the crowds in the street, ignorant of the dramas ahead. They barely knew each other personally, but were thrown together in a car for a fleeting encounter, each being graceful enough to keep it pleasant. Life is made of moments like this.

See how I rated Wilson and Harding in the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.

One thought on “Photo of a pleasant afternoon.

  1. Please re-read the article you link to. It does not say Harding died of food poisoning, just that he had it. The article itself goes on to list cause of death as a heart attack, which is what most agreed happened. His own physician (Dr Sawyer), who had first reported Harding's having food poisoning, believed it was a stroke. But I cannot find anyone anywhere who believes he died of food poisoning.

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