- 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
What the destroyed letters contained remains as much a mystery as the Lincoln correspondence destroyed by his son Robert in the igao’s. Yet there were a number of Harding letters in the hands of various officers of the Harding Memorial Association, formed by the President’s friends in Marion upon his death, that somehow eluded her.
These letters and papers still exist in possession of the Memorial Association; they are kept in an underground vault in Marion. They are at present in the custody of Dr. Carl Sawyer, the president of the association and son of the former White House physician, who has been engaged in sorting and arranging—but not destroying—them. Nothing, however, is open to the public or even to scholars or biographers. Dr. Sawyer maintains that Harding was unjustly treated and that the truth about him will show him to have been “a fine, a wonderful man.” But it does not seem to be a truth that anyone in Marion has been particularly anxious to hasten before the public. Long ago the association resolved not to make the Harding papers public until fifty years after his death, in 1973. Recently, however, Dr. Sawyer said that at least some of the papers would be made public this year. From them, perhaps, a different image of Harding will emerge; some of the mysteries may be dispelled.
Soon after Harding died, the association began to raise money for a tomb splendid enough for their President’s body to lie in state forever. Businessmen, workers, children, Ohioans from every walk of life, and many people from other states contributed. At first the money gushed in with fanfares of publicity, but as the Harding scandals darkened the sky over Marion, money and publicity began to run thin. To the press, as to the politicians, the proposed memorial became an embarrassing subject. Eventually, however, the dogged committee of the Memorial Association succeeded in getting together three quarters of a million dollars.
The cornerstone was laid in 1926, and the dedication was set for July 4, 1927. On high ground in the cemetery off Main Street south of Marion the white marble monument loomed up—a beautifully proportioned circle of Tuscan columns joined by an equally austere entablature. Harding’s remains and those of his wife were moved there early in 1927 to await the official eulogy. This, according to the etiquette of such things, could be spoken by no one less than the President of the United States. President Coolidge was in any case the honorary president of the Memorial Association.
Cautious Cal, however, had no intention of getting himself tarred with the Harding brush. At any mention of dedicating the Harding memorial, Coolidge, according to Hoover, “expressed a furious distaste.”
July 4, 1927, came and went unmarked by any ceremony in the Marion cemetery. So did three more July Fourths. Herbert Hoover, succeeding Coolidge as President, was no more pleased at the prospect of this dubious task than Coolidge, but he was more the man and less the politician. An article that appeared in the September, 1930, issue of Plain Talk called “Harding’s Haunted Tomb” stirred Ohio and bestirred Washington. Hoover finally agreed to take his sour medicine and preside over the dedication.
The Marion memorial was dedicated on June 16, 1931. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes spoke first, revealing to his surprised audience that if Harding had lived he would have been a hopeless invalid and that he knew it. Ex-President Coolidge then cannily accepted the memorial on behalf of the American people, measuring out his words by the teaspoonful. Finally President Hoover stepped before the battery of microphones. Directly behind him, as a member of the committee, sat the gimlet-eyed Daugherty. Hoover might have dodged the issue that was probably alive in the minds of everyone present, glossing it over with meaningless words. But his Quaker conscience faced it squarely. His words were intended to cut home, and they did: Here was a man [he said as if he were addressing the man behind him] whose soul was seared by a great disillusionment. We saw him gradually weaken, not only from physical exhaustion, but also from mental anxiety. Warren Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men who he had believed were his devoted friends. It was later proved in the courts of the land that these men had betrayed not only the friendship and trust of their staunch and loyal friend but they had betrayed their country. That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.