- Historic Sites
The Four Mysteries Of Warren Harding
In the life a and death of a scandal-haunted President, some dark regions still remain
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Several months before the Republican National Convention of 1920, the Ohio political boss Hairy Micajah Daugherly made the offhand prophecy that none of the leading candidates could muster enough votes to win the nomination, and that alter the delegates had reached a dead end, a group of fifteen party elders would then get together in some smoke-filled hotel room. There, bleary-eyed and perspiring profusely—at about 2:11 in the morning—they would pick the party’s candidate, almost inevitably the next President of the United States. That man. Daugherty predicted, would turn out to be his friend and protégé, Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding of Ohio.
Daugherty s prediction was uncannily accurate. There have been a number of versions of the “fifteen men in a smoke-filled room,” and the casual phrase has taken its place in American political folklore as a synonym for cynical electoral manipulation. Vei when Daugherty made it, his remark seemed no more than a politician’s quick quip. Harding was still the darkest of dark horses, a scarcely conceivable candidate. He lacked even the complete Ohio delegation.
The leading Republican contender was Major General Leonard Wood, one of the ablest men in American public life. If the nomination had been by popular vote rather than through the maneuverings of the convention, he would certainly have been the party’s choke for that year. With his imperturbable presence, his air of paternalistic authority, he stood out from the run of politicians like a race horse among jackasses. Hc had begun his military career as a medical lieutenant on an obscure western army post and ended it as Chief of Staff. His civilian record in Cuba, where he served as Governor-General, and later as Governor of the Moro Province in the Philippines was equally brilliant. If anything could be said against him it was that he stood out too far for the comfort of politicians. As the ailing boss of Pennsylvania, Senator Koies Penrose, put it, they wanted a President “who would listen.”
Wood’s principal and implacable opponent was Frank O. Lowden of Illinois, who had made a notable record during five terms in Congress and later as governor of his state. Among the many dark horses were Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. On the opening ballot Wood received 2871/2 votes to Lowden’s 211¼. Harding had 65¼. By the fourth ballot Wood had reached 314¼ with Lowden close behind at 289, but to the astute bosses it was clear that neither could muster the 493 votes needed to win, that the general and the governor had cancelled each other out. Abruptly the permanent chairman, the frosty Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, adjourned the convention until the following morning.
That evening an inner group of senators met in the Blackstone Hotel suite of the enigmatic George Harvey. A former Democrat, an associate of J. P. Morgan, he was editor of the North American Review and had formerly edited Harper’s Weekly ; he liked to claim he had “made” Wilson President. Later he had turned against Wilson and Wilson’s creation, the League of Nations. Harvey was a man of pontifical solemnity who fancied himself a behind-the-scenes statesman, a President-maker. For this night’s work he would become ambassador to Great Britain. Among the others present were Senator Lodge, future Vice President Charles W. Curtis, Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut, Senator James Wadsworth of New York, and Pennsylvania’s Joseph Grundy. The man they picked would have the bloc votes they controlled fed to him ballot by ballot until, with the disintegration of the Wood and Lowden supporters, he wotdd stampede the convention. Such was their plan. Their problem was whom to choose.
As the heat-heavy hours wore away, various candidates were discussed and discarded. Harding, by a process of elimination, remained. He was, after all, innocuous, even if he did talk more about the time he used to play the trombone in his home-town band than about the tariff. As Senator Wadsworth remarked, Harding in the White House could be trusted to sign the bills the Senate sent him and not to send the Senate bills to pass. And he looked like a President. At close enough to 2:11 A.M. to make Daugherty seem clairvoyant, Harvey sent for Harding.
Harding at first glance was an impressive figure. His tall, solid body, his dark complexion contrasting with blue eyes and white hair, gave the appearance of mental and physical vigor. There were some who compared him Io a Roman senator—more justly than they realized, for in his features there lurked the same imbedded sensuality found in Roman portrait busts. William Allen White remembered him as “a handsome dog, a little above medium height, with a swarthy skin, a scathing eye and … the harlot’s voice of the old-time political orator.”
Behind Harding’s senatorial façade fluttered the mind and spirit of a banal small-town editor. But for his grim-jawed wife—whom he, not wholly in affection, called “Duchess'"—and the manipulating Daugherty, he would never have given the Presidency a thought. "1 found him,” Daugherty remarked afterward, “sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water.”