A Presidential Character Politics: As Republicans convene to toot their own horns, chances are ther won't be a peep abouth that old GOP gigolo Warren Harding.

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 14, 1996|By Bill Thomas | Bill Thomas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bob Dole has tonight's GOP nomination all locked up. But if he succeeds in getting elected president, he'll be the first Republican to go to the White House from the Senate (OK, so he quit two months ago) since Warren Harding accomplished the same feat 76 years ago.

That's right, Warren Harding, who died in 1923, the same year Dole was born, and best known for Tea Pot Dome and other scandals, could be back in the news. And in a campaign where the major issues are family values and the character question, his timing couldn't be better.

"Everyone remembers the problems in his administration, but as a candidate Harding had the same back-to-basics appeal that Dole's trying to generate," says Allan J. Lichtman, author of "The Keys to the White House 1996," and a professor of history at American University. "Don't forget," Lichtman adds, "he also won with 60 percent of the vote."

Despite a reputation as one of America's worst presidents, the man who made "Return to Normalcy" his campaign slogan did some things right, and in the months ahead Dole's staff would be smart to find out what they were.

But it's the things he did wrong that make Harding so interesting.

"Warren Harding knew how to influence people," says Lichtman. The first chief executive elected after women got the vote, his silent-movie star good looks made him a virtual matinee idol during the 1920 race. Which was lucky since as a public speaker he usually made little if any sense.

"I would like government to do all it can to mitigate, then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest, in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved," he declared in his inaugural address.

"His obvious shortcomings aside, Harding was probably the

most media-savvy politician the nation had ever seen," explains Donald McCoy, history professor emeritus at the University of Kansas. "He really knew how to get along with the press."

Like Dole, Harding came from America's Heartland. He had been a newspaper editor in Marion, Ohio, when he married Florence DeWolfe, a divorcee five years older than he was and the daughter of the richest man in town. Before long, his wife, known as "the Duchess," took charge of his business and pushed him into politics.

"For her time, she was quite accomplished," says McCoy. "She was every bit as skillful as Elizabeth Dole or Hillary Clinton, a very shrewd and intelligent woman."

In 1898, Harding met Ohio deal-maker Harry Daugherty, who observed that the dashing Republican "looked like a President," an attribute that would eventually help Daugherty put him in the White House.

But it was looking the part that got Harding in trouble. When Mrs. Harding consulted a Washington astrologer about her husband's future, she heard that he was "kind, intuitive and trustful of his friends," and that he would have "many clandestine love affairs."

In fact, after being elected to the U.S Senate in 1914, Harding managed two affairs simultaneously: One with Carrie Phillips, the wife of a Marion businessman; the other With Nan Britton, who first developed a crush on him when she was a 14-year-old high school student.

'I want you'

Harding's long relationship with Mrs. Phillips lasted until his campaign for the presidency, when the Republican National Committee, fearing a scandal, reportedly paid $20,000 for her beau's old love letters.

His affair with Nan Britton began shortly after Harding was elected to the Senate and continued until just before his death. Britton described their first romantic encounter in a tell-all book, "The President's Daughter," published in 1927.

"I shall never forget how Mr. Harding kept saying, after each kiss, 'God God, Nan ' And as I kissed him. I thought that he surpassed even my gladdest dreams. "

Before long, Harding was baring his soul in letters to Britton: "My darling Nan," he wrote, "I love you and I want you to belong to me. I want you. I need you so."

After the United States entered World War I, Harding's interest in sex carried over to foreign relations. According to Britton, he often railed against the German government for its scientific approach to procreation.

Harding had heard the Germans were "attempting to create children without the usual medium of sexual contact." Britton wrote that he "denounced this method of propagation and affirmed that in his belief children should come only through mutual love-desire."

Given his strong feelings on the subject, Harding's young love interest was soon pregnant. He supported the resulting child, a daughter born in 1919, with payments of $500 a month.

Amazingly, Harding's dalliances never became an issue in the presidential election, which he won by a landslide.

"It was a different era," notes Lichtman. "Although maybe not that different."

The ever-vigilant Mrs. Harding was aware of her husband's philandering, yet his meetings with Nan Britton remained a secret for years, perhaps proving that the commander in chief was not as inept as some people think.

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