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.

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.

Gasp! Calvin Coolidge trying to give a speech.

Who was the worst ever President on on the stump?

With the now-not-so-new modern miracle of You-Tube rare old videos pop up all the time. As a result, we get to see just how bad some of the pre-TV Presidents were at trying to talk.

Take a listen to Calvin Coolidge chatting away on the White House lawn in 1924.

“Silent Cal” was not a terrible President. In the C-SPAN president’s poll this year, I ranked him solidly mediocre, as number 20 out of 43.
He presided over the Roaring Twenties and Coolidge Prosperity. He left town just before the bubble burst in the 1929 Stock Crash.

Coolidge was an “Accidental President.” Republicans nominated him to run for Vice President in 1920 after Coolidge, as Massachusetts Governor, took a strong stand in the 1919 Boston Police Strike. When President Warren G. Harding died of food poisoning in 1923 at the height of the Teapot Dome Scandal, Coolidge took the top job.

Watching Coolidge talking from notes in his raspy voice makes you cringe. Could he ever be elected to anything today? We judge public figures today so much by the TV standard, how smooth they appear, how stylish they look, how well they speak. Is it all fluff?

Enjoy the time capsule. Here”s the link.
href=”Calvin’>”>Calvin Coolidge 1924.

A different view of FDR

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To cap off President’s Week, I thought you might enjoy this rare photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taken from the July 1920 Literary Digest.
Just 38 years old, two years before contracting polio, FDR is still the dashing young socialite, gracing Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet. We see him standing in front of one of his favorite cars, a Stutz roadster, holding a hunting rifle trying to mimick is famous Bull Moose Uncle Theodore.
Roosevelt that summer had used his celebrity name to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for Vice President on the ticket headed by Ohio Governor James Cox. They would lose in a landslide to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coollidge.
There is an appealing innocence to this photo. Polio, the Depression, the strains in his marriage, the trials of returning to politics, restoring national confidence in tough times, facing Nazism and Facism in World War II — these things all were in the unknown future.

For now, we just see an easy-going young man on a sunny afternoon. Life was good.

Rating George W. Bush

Before leaving C-SPAN’s poll of presidents, I need to get two more items off my chest. One is about Abraham Lincoln, the winner at #1. Can we please take off the rose-colored glasses and treat him like a real person? I will get to this in my next post.

The other is about George W. Bush. Let’s talk about him right now.

When I first saw the final C-SPAN list two days ago, I quickly noticed the difference between me and the group over GWB, and I wrote this:

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

Let’s be clear. I enjoy revisionist history. In my book BOSS TWEED, I was happy to restore the reputation of America’s most corrupt pol ever, showing that Tweed, while stealing the City blind, was also a big-hearrted man who helped immigrants, built New York, and was victimized by unscrupulous “reformers.” But that didn’t mean be wasn’t corrupt.

It is no Liberal fad to say that George W. Bush was one of the worst presidents ever. Facts are stubborn things. Bush might be a sincere nice man who loves his family, but that doesn’t change the bottom line. How could the C-SPAN group rank him at #36? This son of priviledge is once again being let off the hook with a Gentleman’s C?

True, a rank of 36 is no compliment. It places Bush in the bottom 10, and nobody argues that the bottom two, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, don’t thoroughly deserve those spots.

The difference between 3rd worst (my rank) and 7th worst (the C-SPAN group’s rank) may seem small, but at stake is the historical truth. The higher grade elevates Bush above four other Presidents who certainly had failures and fell far short of being role models, but who simply did too little in office to earn the bottom spots. Specifically:

  • Warren G. Harding (1921-1923), died in office from food poisoning, presided over the Teapot Dome scandal though not personally implicated. During his term, he stabilized the economy, pardoned Eugene V. Debs from prison, and started no wars.
  • William Henry Harrison (1841), died in office after 32 days. At 71 years old he gave a two-hour inaugural speech in a freezing snowstorm without a coat, possibly causing the cold that killed him — not too smart. But he wasn’t in office long enough to do harm;
  • Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), replaced President Zachary Taylor and filled the last 2 1/2 years of his term. He backed the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Civil War by allowing enactment of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act;
  • Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), certainly no gem with a bad personality. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing slavery to spread west. But he, too, was smaller than events arouond him.

George W. Bush was not a small President. He mattered. He was not mediocre. He was bad. The most important national challenge of our lifetimes, the attack of September 11, 2001, came on his watch. He made decisions that had consequences. The result was a string of disasters that is depressingly well known: two unfinished wars, a debt explosion, a financial collapse, a list of demoralized, ineffective Federal agencies, a sleazy re-election, inflamed wedge politics, the use of torture, the loss of global standing, and so on goes the list.

The C-SPAN group gave Bush bottom marks for Economic Management and International Relations, but it saved him from the cellar with C-level grades for three catch-all categories: “Crisis Leadership,” “Vision/ Agenda Setting,” and “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” I don’t buy it.
Ranking President Bush is speculative because the trail is still fresh. He just left office a few weeks ago, his wars are unfinished, his policies are still unfolding. Giving him a mediocre score may allow historians to keep their options open, to hedge their bets in case something in his legacy goes unexpectedly right. I think the record is clear enough to start him off at the near-bottom. If things go his way in the future, so be it.
Thanks for listening. –KenA

C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

Woodrow Wilson, 1916.

Yesterday, C-SPAN finally issued the full results of its 2009 Presidential Survey by some 150 historians. Here’s the link to the full C-SPAN group results. As you know, I had the honor to participate and, for comparison. Here’s the link to my own entry.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I saw the final C-SPAN list, I eagerly put their’s and mine side by side, just to see how I stacked up. What I saw was a profile of my own prejudice staring back at me. Here’s a sample:

Let’s start with the top ten. We agreed on the top four (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts), though in slightly different order. But after that, we parted ways.

For instance, the C-SPAN group ranked both Woodrow Wilson and JFK in the top ten, at #9 and #6 respectively. I couldn’t disagree more. I rated Wilson far lower, at #16, his dismal records on civil rights, wartime dissent, and the post-war Red Scare, as well as his failure to win acceptance of the Versailles treaty, all counting as significant demerits. Similarly, I rated JFK far lower at #17. Yes, he inspired the country, but his sparse legislative record hardly earned him a spot in the top tier. Yes, for glamour, celebrity, and style, JFK wins hands down. But is that really how we rate Presidents? Perhaps had he lived….

As for the bottom ten, I broke from the group on two notables. First, I included Richard Nixon at #36. The C-SPAN group rated him much higher, at #27. I admit to prejudice on this one: Living through the Vietnam War at draftable age could not help but affect my attitude toward Nixon. But even putting that aside, Congress had good reasons for impeaching Nixon in 1974. His temperament — seen in his enemies list, wiretaps on his own staff, and conspiracies galore — was perhaps the worst of any President, and it overshadowed any positive accomplishment.

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

So that’s my first take on the final, official C-SPAN list, and I look forward to debating these points on many more Presidents Days to come. Hope you have a happy one –KenA