For President’s Day, a warm-up: Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding

Presidents Day, February 21, is just two weeks away.  To get in the mood, here’s a favorite photo of a strange pair:  Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, crammed awkwardly into the back seat of a car for the ride from White House to Capitol Hill for Harding’s inauguration, March 3, 1921. 

What could these two possibly talk about?  Wilson the two-term progressive Democrat and Harding the “return to normalcy” Republican?  Wilson had little patience left at this point.  He had suffered a stroke (thrombosis) in late 1920, leaving him crippled and isolated during the last months of his Presidency as the US Senate defeated the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I and Wilson’s own treasured, signature achievement, the League of Nations.  Bitter and distrustful, Wilson now walked with a cane; aides had to lift him physically to put him in the limousine that morning.  

Harding, for his part, had won a landslide election victory in November 1920, but he still felt nervous around Wilson.  So he started talking … about animals.  He mentioned his fondness for elephants, based on his sister’s having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet.  Harding said he always wanted to own one himself.  Wilson shot back, “I hope it won’t turn out to be a white elephant.”

When they reached the Capitol Building, aides lifted Wilson from the car, placed him in a wheelchair, then pushed him to a freight elevator that carried him to the foyer where Senators had gathered.  Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Ma), the Foreign Relations chairman who had led the fight against Wilson’s League of Nations, was one of the first to greet him.  “Well, the Senate threw me down before, and I don’t want to fall down myself now,” Wilson said, apparently meaning it as a joke.

Wilson signed a few final papers, then he told Harding he was fatigued.  A few minutes later, when time came for Harding to step into the sunlight and take the oath of office, Woodrow Wilson did not join him.  Instead, he left quietly through a side door and rode off to the new home he had purchased in Washington, D.C., at 2340 S. Street NW, where he planned to live his final days.

Harding himself would die in office in 1923, shortly before disclosure of the notorious Teapot Dome scandals that would tarnish his name for posterity — despite the fact that no hint of personal corruption even touched Harding himself.  Harding’s reputation as president has enjoyed a recent revival, buoyed by his strong record on economic stability, civil liberties (freeing of political prisoner and socialist icon Eugene V. Debs), and civil rights.  None less that John W. Dean of Watergate fame has lead the charge to restore Harding’s good name in his 2004 biographyWarren G. Harding, followed by Jim Robenalt’s excellent 2009 The Harding Affair

For the best recent book on Woodrow Wilson, check out Kristie Miller’s terrific 2010 offering Ellen and Edith: Wordrow Wilson’s First Ladies


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.