November 2, 2012
On Nov. 2, 1865, Warren Gamaliel Harding was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio; he was elected as the 29th President of the United States on his 55th birthday.
Political lore says that Harding’s nomination as a compromise candidate at the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago was negotiated in George B.M. Harvey’s room at the Blackstone Hotel. Room 404 became known as the “smoke-filled room,” where Harvey, who was the first to back Democrat Woodrow Wilson for president, engineered a brokered convention in favor of the Ohio Senator. The smoke-filled room was real, the negotiations happened, but the convention did not cooperate. It was not until the 12th ballot that Harding was nominated.
Harding worked at his father’s weekly newspaper in Caledonia, Ohio, while he was growing up, and after short stints as a teacher and insurance salesman, he raised $300 to buy the Marion Daily Star, the weakest of three newspapers in the town. He was 21. Harding aligned his editorial pages with Republican Party and within three years he was challenging the established Marion Independent, which was backed by the town’s wealthy businessmen, including his future father-in-law, Amos Hall Kling.
Harding forced the Independent into bankruptcy; even though Democrats dominated the county. Kling fought him for years, financing another competitor, and buying up and calling his debt. Adding fuel to the enmity, Harding had married Florence Kling DeWolfe, Kling’s divorced daughter, and adopted her son. Kling had disowned his daughter when she married an alcoholic, and, perhaps in retribution, she pursued Harding until he capitulated. They married in 1891. Described as a no-nonsense pragmatic, she served as a goad to the affable Harding, who enjoyed his poker games, golf, “bloviating” (a favorite word of his), and a long affair with the wife of a friend. Harding put his bloviating to use, and was a regular speaker on the Chautauqua Circuit talking about politics and conservative philosophy.
Harding was an excellent speaker. He coined the term “Founding Fathers” in his 1916 keynote speech to the Republican National Convention.
Harding was accused of a variety of charges stemming from his county business: bid-rigging and price-fixing on county printing contracts; offering favorable coverage in exchange for favors, and extorting patronage. No charges were ever filed.
Harding began his political career by losing the race for Marion County Auditor’s Office, but eventually won over the Democratic-leaning county. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1899, and became Lieutenant Governor in 1904. He lost a bid for Governor in 1910 to the Democrat incumbent, Judson Harmon. Though he lost, his prominence in the Republican Party was growing.
He made the nominating speech for President William Howard Taft at the 1912 Republican National Convention. And in 1914 was elected to the U.S. Senate.
In 1920, he emerged from room 404 with the Republican nomination guaranteed, and defeated fellow Ohioan, and newspaper publisher, James M. Cox, and his running mate, Franklin Roosevelt, soundly in the election. Harding essentially ignored his opponent and ran against the record of Wilson, calling for a “return to normalcy.” He ran against the progressive policies of the Democrat, against the League of Nations, and against the expanded government activism of the Wilson administration.
Harding’s campaign was the first to use “modern” advertising techniques, and he garnered the support of businessmen like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to back his bid.
He won in a landslide, and rewarded his backers with high position. His administration was soon embroiled in scandal. Harding died two years into office and soon after his death the Teapot Dome oil field scandal erupted. That scandal highlighted the graft and corruption that riddled his appointees, and smothered any legacy of work Harding accomplished.
He enacted the first child welfare program; reduced taxes on the wealthy and corporations; reduced unemployment by 50 percent; settled massively disruptive strikes by mining and railroad workers; created the Budget Bureau to reduce wasteful federal spending; and supported civil rights for African-Americans.
His election was the first where women were eligible to vote.