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From hero to zero: the lessons of President Warren G. Harding

Sunday, May 18, 2003

MARION, Ohio -- Eighty-three years ago, the stone porch at 380 Mt. Vernon Ave. boiled with visitors. Reporters clambered up to hear Warren Harding maunder amiably about how to run the country. Party rajahs who had selected Harding beamed next to their prize racehorse. When Al Jolson visited, it was hard to tell who was latching onto whose renown.

On the Thursday I stopped, the place was dusty and cluttered with scaffolding. Traffic is so thin that Harding's home won't open until later this month and closes after September. People crowd into Boston's John F. Kennedy Library on winter days so vicious it seems they might be blown out to sea from the parking lot. When the Harding Memorial Association tried to give the house away in 1978, the National Park Service declined.

"People forget how popular he really was," said Melinda Gilpin, who manages the place for the Ohio Historical Society. It is her life's calling to impart the "real" Harding and for Gilpin the task is lonely, underfunded and well downstream of history's current.

Ohio is famous for mediocre presidents, from the besotted Ulysses S. Grant to the indecipherable Rutherford B. Hayes. But it remains for Harding to occupy the bottom rank of perennial rankings by historians, dwelling alongside Ulysses S. Grant, who at least gets credit for winning the Civil War.

Harding's disrepair is a lesson on the extent to which history and image become interchangeable and ill serve one another. His predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, allowed a nationwide Red hunt and oversaw the segregation of federal offices. Harding pardoned Eugene V. Debs, the socialist leader Wilson imprisoned, and he gave a speech in Birmingham, Ala., on the need for racial tolerance.

Wilson was publicly despised by the time he departed for Valhalla. He now stands astride the history of the last century as a colossus of liberty and statesmanship. Harding, whose funeral train ran the length of the continent with people lining the tracks, roosts in history's attic, a presidential schnook.

Within two years of dying in a San Francisco hotel as his wife read to him from The Saturday Evening Post, Harding's legacy became the Teapot Dome Scandal and a swirl of stories, some even true, about drinking, skirt-chasing and losing the White House china in a poker game.

Harding's tomb, two miles away, is a marvel of neoclassical columns. Warren and Florence Harding lie entombed beneath 17 feet of solid concrete -- perhaps safe from exhumation by DNA sleuths. But it almost seems as if, upon his passing, the nation wanted to bury the hell out of Warren Gamaliel Harding.

"People are proud to have had a front porch campaign in Marion, proud to have had someone who was elected from Marion," Gilpin said. "They're certainly proud of that. What is unfortunate is that so many people are so underinformed. There were some really, really wonderful things that came out of the Harding administration."

Gilpin points first to the federal budget act that Harding pushed through, creating what eventually morphed into the White House budget office. Appalled by the size of the national deficit, Harding promised to bring in a businessman.

He appointed Andrew Mellon as secretary of the Treasury. Within the first year, the federal deficit was paid down by 25 percent and the Twenties commenced to roar.

After the war, Harding worked to slow the momentum on arms spending lest it upend the civil economy. He gathered together the five naval powers of the world and achieved its first arms pact.

There is no disputing these achievements, but just as Richard Nixon's distinction changed from "he went to China" to "he resigned," Harding's vanished in a scandal in which he played no role. In later years, his worst oratory would be used as backfill to prove an incompetence that he may or may not have possessed.

Harding was the only newspaperman to become president. To no one's surprise, he abused the language like a rental car.

"America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration . . . not surgery but serenity," Harding said. Normalcy -- teachers of English across the land shuddered. A new word stumbled into the lexicon.

A Democratic leader called Harding's language "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea." A correspondent for The New Republic insisted that Harding spoke of raising import tariffs "to protect the struggling industries of Europe."

Comical words, those. A Kennedy he was not. It would have been for Harding to have said something such as:

"In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation."

Which he did, in 1916. But to attain historic weight, it required a better package. It got one. Kennedy's grave is the most visited at Arlington. Harding is getting his porch fixed.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1965).

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