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.
After the divorce, Florence supported herself by teaching piano, and soon came to meet Warren Harding, five years her junior, an ambitious newspaper editor and already an avid womanizer. Harding seems not to have been much attracted to Florence, but he recognized her abilities and never had the strength to say no to anything, even marriage. The wedding scandalized her family as much as her previous elopement -- a persistent rumor had it that the Hardings were partly black -- but Florence was undaunted. Under her management, Harding's newspaper, the Marion Star, prospered, and it was very largely thanks to her that Harding arrived in Washington an affluent man.
By then, Harding had been conducting extramarital affairs for twenty years, his longest and most passionate with Carrie Phillips, the wife of his best friend. Harding had the bad habit of writing torrid letters and erotic poems to his woman of the moment. In 1917, while he was in the Senate, the strongly pro-German Mrs. Phillips tried to use her collection of letters to blackmail Harding into opposing entry into the war. Enough of the old passion lingered that he was able to talk her out of it. But by the time of his presidential run in 1920, such blandishments no longer worked, and Harding's campaign managers had to put together a secret fund to pay off Mrs. Phillips -- and other women as well.
The man in charge of the pay-offs, Harry Daugherty, had been responsible for securing Harding's nomination in the famous smoke-filled room in Chicago's Blackstone Hotel. For the Republican party, still divided by the 1912 split between Roosevelt and Taft, Harding was an acceptable compromise. The party bosses picked much of Harding's cabinet and on the whole did an excellent job: Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state, Andrew Mellon as secretary of the treasury, and Herbert Hoover as secretary of commerce. But Harding chose some of his cabinet too, and there his troubles began. He put Daugherty in the Justice department, gave New Mexico senator Albert Fall the Interior, and made Charles Forbes, a special favorite of Florence's, the first chief of the new Veterans' Bureau.
Harding's admirers would later say that he was betrayed by his friends. But it's hard to believe he had no inkling about Daugherty, Fall, and Forbes. He had known the first two for years, and the truth about Forbes quickly became available. Even Florence Harding's psychic knew it.
In the early 1920s, it was generally believed that the world was running out of oil and that America's reserves ought to be hoarded for military use. Fall took bribes from oilmen, got both the Wyoming oil field known as Teapot Dome and California's Elk Hills transferred from the Navy, and then leased them out. Meanwhile, Florence's courtier Forbes was embezzling millions in hospital-construction funds and medical supplies, and Daugherty was perverting the administration of justice on an unmatched scale.
Anthony does a good job of describing these abuses. But his book is marred by an irritatingly twittery style and a troubling eagerness to make excuses:
Despite Harding's instituting the government's Bureau of the Budget and sponsoring America's first international disarmament conference, his progressive views on racial inequality and fighting religious intolerance, his support of programs for better women's health, his promotion of new American technological industries like moving-picture shows, air travel, radio and the automobile, his successful demand to industry that they institute a fair eight-hour day, Warren G. Harding's name would always be recalled by those oil leases.
But the oil leases were only the start. Harding liked drinking -- liked it quite a lot -- and that was a problem, since alcohol had been outlawed in 1919. He had campaigned in 1920 as a moderate supporter of Prohibition, but he served whiskey at his White House poker parties and boozed it up in houses owned by his friends. At one of these drinking sessions, a bevy of prostitutes was brought in and a girl was killed by a thrown bottle. But when her brother tried to blackmail the president, Harding's cronies at the precursor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation, confined him to St. Elizabeths mental hospital.
A shadowy figure named Jess Smith was in charge of protecting Harding's secrets. Sharing a house with Attorney General Daugherty -- Anthony contends the two were homosexual lovers -- Smith worked closely with the new head of the Bureau of Investigation, a private investigator named Billy Burns. Burns kept his old detective agency active while on government payroll, and it was his agency's employees who did most of the dirty work of threatening women and roughing up those who pried into Harding's affairs. The Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the day was a college professor named William Estabrook Chancellor, who wrote a book documenting Harding's love affairs, charging him with financial wrong-doing, and repeating the old rumor of black ancestry. Thanks to Smith and Burns, Chancellor -- who narrowly escaped being put into St. Elizabeths too -- was spied upon and beaten, his mail illegally opened and copies of his book confiscated.
Smith was, if possible, even closer to the Hardings than he was to Daugherty. He called Florence Harding "Ma" and controlled the secret blackmail fund for paying off Harding's women. Anthony suggests that Smith also used the money to mollify Florence when she got wind of some particularly humiliating new affair. And after the election, Smith used his fabulous connections to make himself a fortune, selling protection to bootleggers and pocketing tens of thousands of dollars from the sale of German property impounded during the war. When he died under suspicious circumstances in 1923, the death looked like suicide but was widely believed to be murder -- a view that Anthony seems to endorse.
Harding may not have been a bad man, but the people around him -- and above all, his deeply complicitous wife -- were nonetheless obliged to do bad things to protect him from his weaknesses. It's hard work keeping a president's secrets (including, in Harding's case, an illegitimate child by an adoring admirer thirty years his junior), and harsh and expensive methods must often be used and then concealed.
If Harding seems like a figure from today's headlines, Calvin Coolidge looks as remote as a Civil War tintype. Coolidge won the campaign of 1924 not so much because of his policies -- though those seem increasingly attractive -- as because of his personality. When Coolidge died in 1933 at the age of sixty-one, Al Smith, the Democratic nominee of 1928, declared that he belonged "in the class of presidents who were distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history, and to afford, in a time of extravagance and waste, a shining public example of the simple and homely virtues which came down to him from his New England ancestors."
History has confirmed Smith's evaluation of the "low ebb" of Harding, but curiously it has not agreed with him about Coolidge. Although Coolidge was an immensely popular president in his day -- he would almost certainly have won reelection in 1928 had he run -- his reputation began to dwindle as soon as he left office: When she heard of Coolidge's death, Alice Roosevelt mocked, "How could they tell?" In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s famous 1962 poll of historians, Coolidge ranked above only Grant, Harding, Buchanan, and Pierce.
His reputation got a little boost in 1982 when Thomas Silver published Coolidge and the Historians, criticizing the profession for its Democratic partisanship. But in the 1996 version of Schlesinger's poll, Coolidge had risen merely to "low average." Such assessments have real influence on casual students. A recent popular history, Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents, follows the old convention and ranks Coolidge the sixth-worst president, below Carter, Taft, and Benjamin Harrison. It's a strange assessment of a man who achieved every one of his domestic political goals and presided over five of the most peaceful and prosperous years in American history.
Or maybe it's not so strange. Character is something normally taken for granted in presidents. It's only when memories of presidential wrongdoing are fresh that we fully appreciate how important it is.
Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth, Vermont. The Coolidges were prosperous by local standards, although by any other standard they lived a hard, frugal life. Coolidge was visiting his father when he got the news in the early morning hours of August 3, 1923, that Harding had died, and he took the oath of office from his father, the town notary, in the parlor of the house in which he had grown up. It had neither a telephone, nor electricity, nor plumbing, nor any heating except an old wood stove.
Robert Sobel wryly notes -- in one of the many astute observations in his graceful, intelligent, and sympathetic biography -- that Coolidge was lucky in his timing: Had Harding died a day later, the press would have found Calvin Coolidge not in his father's rustic cabin but at the mansion of a rich friend. But luck is something people often observe in Coolidge. H. L. Mencken made it the centerpiece of his famous essay on the president, relating the story of a Boston journalist's prediction at the 1920 Republican convention that Harding would have to die in office -- because Calvin Coolidge "is the luckiest -- in the whole world."
But Coolidge himself would have disagreed about his luck. He lost his mother when he was twelve and his only sibling, a sister, when he was eighteen. In 1920, when he was on his way to the convention, his beloved stepmother died. And in 1924, the worst blow of all: His younger son died at sixteen when a blister he developed playing tennis without socks became infected. Coolidge was always taciturn -- it was a running joke that his wife taught deaf-mutes before her marriage -- but only after the death of his son did he become "Silent Cal."
Perhaps these afflictions explain Coolidge's dark, mordant wit, like his famous reply, "You lose," to the woman who told him she had bet that she could extract more than two words from him, or his comment -- after hearing the sermon of a visiting Baptist preacher who had refused breakfast because he was less eloquent on a full stomach -- "He might as well have et."
Once, on a questionnaire asking his hobbies, Coolidge wrote, "holding office." He began running within eight years of his graduation from Amherst. He was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1906, and then governor in 1918. At the state level, Coolidge earned a reputation as a progressive, with a special interest in the care of the insane and public transit, but what made him a national political star was his breaking of the Boston police strike in 1919 and his celebrated reply to Samuel Gompers: "There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, any time."
The radical ferment of 1919 frightened Americans and was in large part responsible for the Democrats' dreadful defeat in 1920 after holding the presidency for the eight years of Wilson's presidency. Coolidge's participation in that defeat explains why later historians were so often venomous toward him. Even though Wilson's reputation has eroded a little (he was, after all, the most virulent segregationist to hold office since before the Civil War), it remains astonishingly high among professional historians. The only Ph.D. ever to occupy the White House, Wilson exemplifies to his fellow Ph.D.s idealistic statesmanship rising above the grubby realities of politics. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. puts it in his Coming of the New Deal: "The old Wilsonians watched the New Era in indignation and contempt. They were men who had known the exaltation of idealism. They had dared to act greatly and risk greatly. They saw after 1920 a different America moved, as they conceived it, by ignoble motives."
But not even Schlesinger's flattery could equal Wilson's self-appraisal. In 1923, in his last public address, he declared, "I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction, as will come upon them again, utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns."
Wilson's sententiousness -- in stark contrast to the dry self-mockery of Calvin Coolidge, who when asked his first reaction to the news that he would be president answered, "I thought I could swing it" -- is now almost as badly out of style as his racism. And yet, even as Wilson's star sinks, Coolidge's has failed to rise. The slurs of the 1920s and 1930s still damage him.
In his new biography, Robert Sobel gamely sets the record straight. Coolidge was not unintelligent: His wedding present to his wife was a translation of Dante's Inferno he had been quietly working on for years. If he kept his mouth shut, it was because -- as he told Herbert Hoover -- nine-tenths of the people who come to see the president want something they should not have, and if you just stay still they eventually go away.
Neither was Coolidge lazy. Walter Lippmann had perhaps the best description:
Mr. Coolidge's genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for a soft and easy desire to let things slide.
Lippmann -- then still in his Progressive phase -- was unhappy about this, but at least he understood: Coolidge wanted to roll back the expansion of federal power under Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, and he worked hard at doing it. Before World War I, the federal government spent about 3 percent of the national income, but the ratio shot up to about 20 percent in 1918 and 1919. Coolidge dragged it back down to peacetime norms and slashed taxes to match.
Coolidge was not cold. It's hard for present-day Americans, floating in a soup of sentimentality, to appreciate the depth of feeling that could be concealed by the inexpressiveness of the old Yankees. A visitor who prodded the president about his long, silent staring out the window extracted the answer, "When I look out that window, I always see my boy playing tennis on that court out there."
And Coolidge was not crass. Few remarks by an American president have ever been as misunderstood as Coolidge's line that "the business of America is business." The 1920s were caught up in a great debate over whether the exciting new medium of the day, radio, should be privately owned or controlled by the state. Progressives like Herbert Hoover favored government control and even cast yearning eyes on newspapers. They believed that insulating the media from profit and loss would make it more truthful and reliable. Coolidge rejected that view:
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to those influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business.
Coolidge was wrong about international economics. He was a protectionist at a time when Europe desperately needed to export to America. But he was right about almost everything else: a tax-cutter, a defender of the independence of the press, a racial moderate (he delivered the commencement address to the graduating black students at Howard University in 1924, then a startling thing for a president to do), a dogged opponent of every scheme to extend government ownership. Even Mencken, who had so bitingly mocked Coolidge in the 1920s, eventually recanted: "If the day ever comes when Jefferson's warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, Cal's bones, now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite, will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service."
The good news from Carl Anthony's Florence Harding is that the truth eventually comes out. The good news from Robert Sobel's Coolidge is that the American people can tell the difference between an honest man and a dishonest one, and will turn against dishonesty -- even in a prosperous time like 1924.
But there's bad news in these books too. Sobel's implicitly reminds us of how completely the intellectuals who have charge of American history can be blinded by their ideological prejudices. And the passage of gush that mar Anthony's otherwise fascinating book should warn us that power and glamour can induce the suspension of moral judgment even in someone who knows all the facts. In other words, character counts -- but sadly only over the long run and, even then, not for everyone.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.