That's what Harry M. Daugherty said the day he laid eyes on Warren Gamaliel Harding. He didn't know the man. He just liked what he saw. Harding was tall and handsome and the soul of the American middle ground, standing there before the hotel bootblack in rustic Marion, Ohio. By God, he looked like a President! Daugherty knew itand this was years before the man got to the White House.
Daugherty knew it and he would wait; you don't run into a ready-made, built-in President every day, no sir.
The lawyer Daugherty was high in Republican state politics and going higher (and wider and handsomer). Harding published the Marion Star and enjoyed much contentment despite a loveless marriage to rich Florence King. The confident Daugherty introduced himself as Harding yielded his seat on the shoeshine stand. Then he proceeded to take this man slowly and surely up the ladderfrom the Ohio Senate in 1900 to lieutenant governor in 1904 to a bid for governor in 1910 to the United States Senate in 19l5. In Washington, the Roman idol from Ohio voted the party line, yea or nay, and stirred up absolutely nothing on his own. He made the papers so infrequently that his beautiful face almost always escaped public recognitiona decidedly handy item in his case, as later events would show.
The absence of a meaningful record made Harding quite attractive as the Republican National Convention of 1920 assembled in Chicago. The Grand Old Party needed nothing more than an upright American who couldn't be pilloried for past deeds or misdeeds. "Any good Republican can defeat any good Democrat," said Pennsylvania Boss Boies Penrose, and it figured. The people had
returned Mr. Wilson to power under the slogan "He kept us out of war" but were hip-deep in it three months later and now had the postwar miseriesstrikes, towering prices, depression, high rents, and "Bolshevik" plots. It was time for a change.
Harding, who was happy enough in the club known as the United States Senate, had to be talked into setting up headquarters at Chicago. But Daugherty knew what he was doing. He expected General Leonard Wood and Frank O. Lowden, the front-runners, to knock themselves out.
He put Harding in as Ohio's favorite son and waited for the lightning to strike. Sure enough, when the balloting deadlocked on the sixth time around in the convention's fifth day, the Republican elders collected at 2 A.M. in a suite in the Blackstone's Room 401the smoke-filled room of
legendand agreed that Harding would do just fine.
Colonel George B.M. Harvey, an apostate Democrat who had shifted with the postwar tide, was delegated to put the one big question to the prospective nominee: "We think you should tell us, on your conscience and before God, whether there is anything that might be brought up against you that would embarrass the party, any impediment that might disqualify you or make you inexpedient, either as candidate or as President."
The question stunned the dignified, gray-haired paragon from the Buckeye State. There was an agonized pause. Could he think it over, please? Colonel Harvey directed the big fellow to another room. Harding came back ten minutes later and said no, there was nothing that might disqualify him from accepting the nation's highest honor . . . no impediment.
The bosses' choice sent the delegates home hung over with joy. They had a sure winner. As Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut said, "Harding is no world-beater but he is the best of the second-raters." (The very same Senator turned up in the Poker Cabinet later.)
Mrs. Harding, called Flossie in Ohio and "The Duchess" along the Potomac, was hardly elated. "I can see but one word written above his head if they make him President," she said, "and that word is Tragedy."
The woman was right; he would not live through his term and scandal would stalk his grave. Harding himself couldn't quite harness the lightning. "I feel like a man who goes in with a pair of eights and comes out with aces full," he said. He was plainly worried.
The election ran according to forecast. Harding's 16,000,000 votes nearly doubled James M. Cox's and he carried thirty-seven stateswithout benefit of a real campaign. The Republican pin-up boy confined himself largely to his own front porch and stoodor satmore or less squarely on his classic Boston utterance of May, 1920: "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration . . . not surgery but serenity." The one unserene note in the campaignan allegation that the Hardings had Negro blood tracing back to a mysterious West Indian in the familyevaporated under examination.
Harding took office in March, 1921, with many misgivings. He really didn't feel equal to the job. "Talk to God about me every day by name," he besought a friendly bishop, "and ask Him somehow to give me strength for my great task."
He took the same theme to the people. "It will help," he said, "if we have a revival of religion . . . I don't think any government can be just if it does not have somehow a contact with Omnipotent God." He tried to keep his own contact with The Man Upstairs through the Psalms of David, the Four Gospels and Solomon.
The Bible didn't help.
Harding got some respectable names into his CabinetAndrew Mellon in the Treasury, Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Herbert Hoover in Commerce, Will Hays in the Post Office, Henry C. Wallace in Agriculturebut his government was full of leaks. Harry Daugherty was his Attorney General and Albert M. Fall was his Secretary of Interior and the place crawled with slick operators, boodle boys and bag men. The Ohio Gang and its recruit legion was in the White House woodwork from the start.
The tolerant Harding may not have known itno one ever accused him of being a big brainbut he must have suspected it. "My God," he told William Allen White, "this is a hell of a job. I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of them all right. But my damn friends, White, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights."
That wasn't the whole truth. The President didn't walk the floor much, but rather stayed up late sweating over a hot card table with the strangest assortment of highbinders that had ever passed through the White House portals.
The Poker Cabinet included some hands whose aces-in-the-hole were to disgrace Harding in the grave. Colonel Charles R. Forbes would do time behind bars for frauds running into the millions when the Veterans Bureau was under his charge. Albert M. Fall and Harry F. Sinclair would go to jail in the Teapot Dome scandal. Harry Daugherty ("I know Harding and I know who the crooks are and I want to stand between them," he once told journalist Mark Sullivan) would barely beat a prison term and his mysterious right-hand man, Jess Smith, would commit suicide. Indeed, the two poker pals fated to come out the cleanest would be the whacky millionaire, Ned McLean, and the White House bootlegger, Mort Mortimer. No one ever accused them of dispensing anything but fun, frolic and spirits.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, long-time arbiter of what was right and wrong in Washington's social life, took a dim view of the goings-on in the White House study under the Bible-spouter from Ohio. Mrs. Longworth, who in a 1969 television interview would describe Harding as not the worst President in our history but surely "the most inferior man" in that role, put it this way in her memoir, Crowded Hours, in 1933:
"Though violation of the Eighteenth Amendment was a matter of course in Washington, it was rather shocking to see the way Harding disregarded the Constitution he was sworn to uphold. Though nothing to drink was served downstairs, there were always cocktails in the upstairs hall outside the President's room . . . While the big official receptions were going on, I don't think the people had any idea what was taking place in the rooms above.
One evening . . . a friend of the Hardings asked me if I would like to go up to the study. I had heard rumors and was curious to see for myself what truth was in them. No rumor could have exceeded the reality; the study was filled with cronies . . . the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at handa general atmosphere of waiscoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk and the spittoon alongside."
Mrs. Longworth observed acidly that between the White House of Coolidge and Harding "the atmosphere was as different as a New England front parlor from a back room in a speakeasy." But when Harding went out into the hinterlands to "bloviate" (a word he coined along with "normalcy"), he dealt sternly with illicit drinking. His bloviations often included impassioned demands for a rigid enforcement of Prohibition. He pulled no punches. He was for a Dry America, bone-dry, all the way.
Except, of course, on the first floor of the stately mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue, or the "Little Green House" on H Street where the Ohio Gang liked to horse around, or in the locker room at the golf club, or on the Presidential special . . . Or in the dim and lonely love nests where that pretty blond child, Nan Britton,
waited in the back street of Warren Harding's life . . . Nan Britton, mistress of a President, mother of
his daughter, would tell that story to the world in 1927 . . .