The Most Scandalous President

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Working conditions for all Americans deeply engaged Harding’s sympathies: He supported the right to bargain collectively and he spoke against strikes only when public safety was at risk, as when the railroad workers and coal miners went out in 1922. Early in his administration he tried to abolish the twelve-hour workday and the six-day workweek, putting persistent pressure on the steel industry. “This is far too heavy a draft upon the energies of the workmen employed in any industry,” he said, and went on to call for the “abolition of excessive hours and excessive days in order that the working forces may have time for leisure . . . and . . . family life . . . which is essential to the full enjoyment of American freedom and opportunity.” Just hours before his sudden death, the big steel producers did eliminate the twelve-hour workday, and they credited the President with having spurred them to their action.

 
“My God, we’ve got a President who doesn‘t know beds were invented, and he was elected on a slogan of ‘Back to Normalcy.’”

Harding’s era teemed with young industries that grew to dominate our century, and the President had the perspicacity to see their importance. Throughout his career he promoted businesses growing up around radio, civil aviation, the movies, and the automobile. He and his wife were the first White House residents to install a radio, and he felt strongly that the quickly proliferating stations needed federal regulation. He introduced a radio bill just months before his death; five years later it gave rise to the Federal Radio Commission. Florence Harding was the first President’s wife to fly in an airplane; her husband never did, but he proposed an air commerce act and a bureau of aeronautics, which came into being five years later. The 1921 Federal Highway Act he pushed through Congress provided a generous seventy-five-million-dollar appropriation for a national highway system. In 1923 the sum grew to eighty-eight million.

Outside of the automobile, the movies most fascinated Harding. Florence Harding was behind the first use of movie stars in a presidential campaign, the first invitations of movie actors and executives to the White House and the first showing of films there Harding began a White House movie library. As he explained to one theater manager in a previously unpublished letter, “The screen will most securely establish itself as an accepted and useful factor in national life in proportion as it shall recognize its duty in behalf of the widest concerns of the community. It possesses potentialities of vast service, civic, educational moral. . . . To present on the screen the industrial, commercial, and intellectual activities of the country can not but widen the vision of the great audience that you daily serve.”

As I sifted through his papers, I saw how seriously Harding took the educational possibilities of film. Indeed, he was first to articulate an issue that continues to compel us today. In a letter to Will Hays, director of the Motion Picture Association, he wrote: “Next to studying geography by seeing the world . . . would be studying it with the aide of the moving picture. . . . I do not want to be understood as assuming that education can or ought to be made a mere pleasure, a titillation of the fancy, by making it too easy. I would not by any means turn the school room into a moving picture theater. . . . On the other hand, I would use the picture as a means to enlist the pupil’s interest in the real work that must be involved in acquiring any education worthy of the name.”

Despite later claims that Harding read only Zane Grey novels and the funny pages, he was extremely well read, counting Dickens, Carlyle, Pope, and Shakespeare among his favorite writers. He was also devoted to early American and European history and thought the movies could help plant similar interests in other Americans.

“I do not know whether anybody has presented Henry Esmond in a screen drama,” he wrote Hays. ”. . . I should think that if it were done in a series of reels, and if these, gradually unfolding the story, were interspersed with studies and lectures on the history of the period, it would constitute an ideal method. . . . The European of the latter middle ages, of the period just before and at the beginning of the Renaissance, would be wonderfully portrayed in a similar series of pictures dramatizing The Cloister and the Hearth .” Seeing great movie possibilities in the American Revolution, he suggested that Irving Bacheller’s In the Days of Poor Richard , George Trevelyan’s History of the American Revolution , Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith , and Francis Parkman’s Histories of the Indians all could be made into one “screen and lecture presentation of the dramatic things in our country’s history.”