The Magazine


Warren G. Harding and William F. Clinton -- and Why Calvin Coolidge Isn't Like Them

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By DAVID FRUM
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For the last six years, Americans have been debating the question of how much character counts in a president -- and, thus far, the people who answer "not much" seem to be winning. Bill Clinton needs to hold on only two more years to finish his presidency and get safely out of town.

But history has a way of undoing, in the long run, all such seeming triumphs. That is perhaps the most important lesson of two new biographies of figures in the 1920 presidential election: Coolidge by Robert Sobel and Florence Harding by Carl Sferrazza Anthony.

Two years after the end of the First World War, the Democrats James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt suffered the most crushing defeat in American history, garnering only 35 percent of the vote. The victorious Republican ticket yoked, as candidate for vice president, Calvin Coolidge -- one of the most upright men ever to serve in the White House -- with Warren Gamaliel Harding -- one of the most lax and corrupt.

In a recent issue of the Washington Post, Carl Anthony noted the striking parallels between Harding and Clinton. During Harding's presidency,

the scandals never seemed to end. There was the strange suicide of an administration official, made even more mysterious by a note that disappeared. Then came an investigation into payoffs and cover-ups connected to a notorious land deal. The president's friends launched smear campaigns against his perceived foes. Dossiers were compiled, private eyes and snitches deployed. Affidavits were drafted in which various women denied liaisons with the president. Jobs were arranged to keep people quiet.

Through all the Harding scandals, Anthony observes, "a steel-willed first lady kept the press at bay and did whatever was necessary to defend her husband's reputation -- even if it meant destroying evidence."

Indeed, the parallels go far beyond those that Anthony mentions. Scandal-plagued administrations have a logic and a grammar of their own. A president has a vice. It's not necessarily such a serious vice, but it's politically dangerous. It needs to be covered up, generating secrets and deceit. (Both Florence Harding and Hillary Clinton found themselves waging war against the staff of the executive mansion, whom they suspected of snooping.) Some of the people with damaging knowledge about the president are loyalists, but others are not, and they must be either bribed or bullied into silence. That costs money, and raising it in turn generates new secrets and new lies.

"Harding was not a bad man," Alice Roosevelt Longworth once declared. "He was just a slob." Good-natured, weak, and carnal, he knew his limitations: "I am unfit for this place," he unhappily confided, "and never should have come here." He blamed his wife for removing him from the Senate and inflicting the presidency on him. He was right: Florence Kling Harding deserves the title of the fiercest and most ambitious first lady.

She was the first president's wife able to vote for her husband in a national election, the first to ride in an airplane, the first to give speeches in public, and the only one ever to bear a child out of marriage. She rejected traditional feminine roles more adamantly than any other first lady -- surrendering her son to her parents, showing little affection for her grandchildren, and disdaining domesticity.

Like Hillary Clinton, she exerted a powerful influence on her husband's appointments, and the people who benefited from her favor were unusually prone to scandal and trouble. Like Hillary Clinton, too, Florence Harding employed psychics to commune with the spirit world. It was Florence Harding who managed the family's money and who was responsible for such transactions as the sale of their Washington mansion for an above-market price. And it was Florence Harding who presided over the elaborate apparatus of deceit, payoff, and intimidation necessary to keep Harding's secrets.

The daughter of the richest man in Marion, Ohio, Florence Kling resented her domineering father and rebelled by running off with the ne'er-do-well son of one of his many enemies. She would later marry and then divorce the man, but Carl Anthony proves that their child was born before the marriage was formalized.