The Buzz on Warren G. Harding

Who was the first U.S. senator elected by the people rather than by the state legislature? Warren G. Harding of Ohio, in 1914.  
Who was the first U.S. president elected after women got the right to join in and cast their votes in U.S. elections?  Warren G. Harding in 1920. 

Let’s not jump to any conclusions about voter wisdom here, but readers interested in looking more deeply into the mind of Mr. Harding have ample opportunity this year. 

Phillip Payne’s Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (Ohio University Press) came out late last year and is now available in paperback. The author, a professor of history, used to work at the Warren G. Harding Home, but his book is not a defense of Harding. It’s a fascinating exploration of the man’s reputation in his own time and of how we have continued to play upon Harding’s reputation over the years since then. Payne’s concluding chapter on the smug (my word) presidential ratings by historians, and of the continued convenience of using Harding to this day as an example of failure is a fascinating one. He notes even Malcolm Gladwell leaping on the Harding-bashing bandwagon, referring as Gladwell does in Blink to "the Warren Harding error" of our assuming that because someone (e.g., Harding) looks a part (e.g., presidential) that he/she will thrive in that part. 

Next, there’s Katherine A.S. Sibley’s First Lady Florence Harding, now available from the University Press of Kansas. Its LJ review will be in our "Xpress Reviews" online later this week. Should you wish to study Mrs. Harding, there is also Carl S. Anthony’s biography, which published 11 years ago. Both books give Mrs. Harding her due; both also place her in the context of a variety of Harding scandals.

But Warren G. Harding gets his most detailed close-up in James David Robenalt’s The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War, due out in September from Palgrave Macmillan with an initial printing of 40,000. Ohio attorney Robenalt interweaves the story of Harding’s long love affair with an Ohio neighbor, Carrie Phillips, with a narrative of pro-German espionage on American soil during World War I. The two stories come together because Carrie Phillips was an increasingly pro-German sympathizer as the war continued, even as Warren Harding’s political fortunes grew. I have not read the entire book, which is going out for its proper review in LJ, but from the considerable amount that I did read I came away intrigued by Harding. Readers will get a glance at scores of letters that he wrote to Carrie Phillips and that she saved (these have never before been read by the public and in fact the originals remain sealed for several years to come).

Among other things, Harding wrote Phillips about what he was reading, something that always fascinates me: so often it is not a book that one has heard of.  In the fall of 1913, Harding was reading a new English historical novel, Bendish: A Study in Prodigality, by Maurice Henry Hewlett.  After 1913, the book saw no further editions–until now.  BiblioLife has brought it back into print, so it can be a kind of companion to Harding all over again in 2009! 


Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.