Guest Blogger: Jim Robenalt on how HBO’s Broadwalk Empire flubbed its take on President Warren G. Harding

While skillfully written and engaging, the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire creates a highly flawed view of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding, and his alleged relationship with Nan Britton. The caricature of Harding continues a long-series of smears that date back to the 1920s.

Harding’s relationship with Nan Britton is questionable. His relationship with a woman named Carrie Phillips is not. My book, The Harding Affair, discloses Harding’s complex relationship with Mrs. Phillips through the use of over 900 pages of letters Harding wrote to Phillips from 1910 though 1920, when he was elected President of the United States. Phillips and Harding were caught in an age when divorce was unthinkable and there were multifaceted reasons for their long-term (15 year) affair. The affair was much too complicated to caulk it up sheer womanizing.

The Britton allegations are subject to real doubt, as I point out in my book. Ms. Britton lived directly behind Carrie Phillips’s home in Marion, and there is good reason to believe her book, The President’s Daughter, came from her familiarity with the Harding/Phillips correspondence and not because of any real relationship between then-Senator Harding and Ms. Britton.

The HBO series relies on biographies that falsely used the Phillips correspondence. Worse, letters Mr. Harding wrote to Mrs. Phillips are used to manufacture dialogue for Ms. Britton’s character.

But sadly for history, these smears of President Harding distort what he did as President and as a U. S. Senator. Harding was no “imbecile,” as Nucky Thompson, the main character in the HBO series, calls him. As a Senator, Harding courageously stood against Woodrow Wilson’s call for America to go to war to “make the world safe for democracy,” though he did vote for war. In a lesson America never learned, Harding warned that it is not the business of the United States to engage in regime change through the violence of war.

During his presidency, Harding pardoned Socialist Eugene Debs, who was rotting in an Atlanta prison, sent there by the Wilson Administration for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act.

Debs’ crime? He spoke out against the war—that is, he exercised his right of free speech. Wilson denied a pardon even after the war ended. Harding granted it.

Who is the “imbecile”?

Entertainment is entertainment. But playing fast and loose with serious historical figures only diminishes our true understanding of history’s lessons.

For a more, see

Jim Robenalt, a lawyer and writer in Cleveland, Ohio, is author both of The Harding Affair and his other terrific book, Linking Rings, William W. Durbin, the Magic and Mystery of America.


Harding photograph is from the Ohio Historical Society.

We’re all socialists now? If so, then where is our Eugene Debs?

OK, Guerrilla Historians, let’s be clear. Do we really live in a new age of Americn socialism?

If so, then here’s my question: Where is our Eugene Debs?

Yes, after months of government bailouts of banks, investment firms, insurance giants, car companies, and all the rest, it sure looks a lot like public control of the means of production. But that kind of talk is European socialism. Don’t forget, in America, we had our own home-grown brand, articulated by the likes of Big Bill Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), Emma Goldman (who perferred being called Anarchist and was highly disillisioned by Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and its clearest, most articulate voice of all, Eugene Debs.

Debs ran for president five times as a socialist, winning almost a million votes — six percent of the total popular count — both in 1912 and 1920 (even though in 1920 he ran from a Federal prison cell). Debs avoided esoteric theory. He defined his socialism in terms of justice, community, solidarity, and self-reliance, stemming from Jefferson and Lincoln as much as Marx or Engels. That’s why he was so popular, not in universities, but in the American heartland and in working and immigrant neighborhoods.

To Debs, the evil of capitalism was no abstraction. Debs formed his peculiar view of socialism after leading the epic Pullman Palace Car strike of 1894, started as strictly non-violent and ultimately crushed by vigilantees, detectives, and Federal troops. Debs himself was jailed in the affair for violating an injunction, and that was where we first read Karl Marx. Debs would go to prison again, in 1918, convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking out against the draft and suppression of free speech during World War I.

This was the age of sweat shops and worse, long before basic health and safety rules, pensions, or worker rights. Resisters like Debs risked being blacklisted, jailed, or lynched. The rise of labor back then was the great civil rights / human rights struggle of the age.

Our society in 2009 has changed dramatically from Eugene Debs’s America a century ago. But if we all now have to become socialists to get through the current economic collapse, then I at least want a leader like Debs, a socialist not ashamed of the name, willing to fight as an underdog, prepared to sacrifice personal freedom for principle, and able, through his speeches, to inspire his followers to march cheerfully to the barricades.

If you think I’m a fan, I can’t deny the obvious. Here are two great recent books about Debs that might win you over too:

Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg and
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore.
— Hear his voice on YouTube.


Gasp!!! It’s been five months now since I last posted anything on this Blog. Is that pathetic, or what? Well, if you thought I was gone, you were wrong. I have not dropped off the face of the earth. You are not rid of me. I have decided to come back.

The truth be know, I have largely shelved my writing-historian life the past five months and happily returned to my first profession, practicing law. Yes, by day, I am a registered, card-carrying Washington lawyer-lobbyist. You can look it up. Here’s a link to my latest public report at OpenSecrets.Org: ) The work has been interesting and productive and — no apologies here — it’s been lucrative too. Writers have to eat and pay bills, and I like to eat well. And a few months of hourly billings certainly helps.

But so much water has run under the bridge these past few months: Hillary, Obama, McCain, easily the most exciting Presidential sweepstakes in memory, not to mention the ongoing drama between George Bush’s last gasp White House and Nancy Pelosi’s stumbling Congress, and now the economy bumbling over, of all things, subprime mortgages. And that’s not even counting the New York Giants. What woeful, thrilling times we live in. How can a historian be silent?

Yet here I am, sitting silently all these months, a mere spectator. No, I haven’t given up being a fervid political junkie. I continue to read my three newspapers each day (the Washington Post, NY Times, and Roll Call). I listen to POTUS 08 on XM radio, check the DrudgeReport and other internet sites, and tune in pundits for hours on end. No excuses. I like it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But every time I sit down to try and write a Blog post or an article, about politics, history, or anything else, I get distracted. Words dry up. I find other things needing attention. Writer’s block? Perhaps. But these blocks don’t come out of thin air.

Since my last book was published in May 2007 (Young J. Edgar: Hoover the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, 1919-1920), I admit that I’ve researched at least half a dozen good ideas for next topics, including possible narratives about figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, American socialist founder Eugene V. Debs, long-time autocratic House Speaker Joe Cannon, feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull, John Adams and the Boston Tea Party, and even the adventures of a once-famous British ocean deep-sea diver from the 1880s named Alexander Lambert. All these ideas have great promise, real keepers. But here too, the writers block sets in. I find problem at every turn, and no path out of the forest.

So I’ve made a decision. To start writing again, I need to write. And be published. That’s the only way to beat writers block. And in this modern world of cyberspace, the way you do it is through a Blog. So here I am Blogging — and in this initial effort, I am Blogging in the worst stereotypical way: with a self-absorbed, nascissistic, whiney, inconclusive essay about nothing but myself. But I guess that’s how you start. It doesn’t become literature overnight.

So expect to see me posting more often on this space. What I’ll write about, what shape it will take, ony time will tell. But plan to spent time having Coffee with Ken. I am going into writer’s training. Any encouragement would be appreciated.

So that’s it from the home front. Hope you’ll put up with me in the meantime.

Thanks, and all the best. –KenA