The scandalous life and death of President Harding

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Warren G. Harding was the 29th president of the United States and has been voted America’s worst president ever in many polls including one by Harvard’s Arthur Schlesinger.  He appointed several extremely wealthy businessmen to cabinet positions, the most famous of whom were Pittsburgh banker and multi-millionaire Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury, and Harry Daugherty, who was a Western rancher and former miner, as Attorney General. He also appointed some very incompetent and inexperienced people to important positions, such as his brother-in-law to be superintendent of federal prisons, where drugs continued to be readily available to anybody who wanted to use them. 

In the summer of 1923, near the end of the second year of his presidency, rumors started to spread of his affairs and the criminal actions of many of his appointees. To reach out to his constituency, Harding and his wife went on a speaking tour to Alaska, Washington and California.  On August 2, 1923 in San Francisco, he died of a  heart attack at the very young age of 57.  

Warren Harding

His Early Years and Marriage

Harding was born in rural Ohio on November 2, 1865, to a father who went to medical school for one year and then became a doctor, and a mother who was a state-licensed midwife.  When Harding was 11, his father gave up medicine and bought a small local newspaper and employed his son for several tasks at the newspaper.  At age 14, Harding enrolled at Ohio Central College in Iberia.  After college, he bought a struggling newspaper, The Marion Star, and turned it from bankruptcy into a money-making business.   

His newspaper made him many enemies, including a wealthy local developer and banker named Amos Kling, who hated him because of the nasty editorials Harding wrote about him.  He had a an extremely capable daughter named Florence Kling who was five years older than Harding.  When Harding started to date her, her father was furious and told her to stop seeing him. Harding threatened to beat up her father and married her when she was 31 and he was 26. She was so much smarter than Harding that she ran his newspaper, his money and his political career.  She apparently ran everything but his affairs, while he charmed people with his speeches. His glib tongue helped him win a place in the Ohio State Senate, followed by a term as lieutenant governor. Eventually, with his wife’s help, the tall and handsome Harding was elected President of the United States.

Unexpected Presidency

Before the Republican National Convention in 1920, he was not even considered a viable candidate for president.  The leading candidate was Teddy Roosevelt, but he had died suddenly on January 6, 1919.   None of the candidates for the Republican nomination, including the leading candidate, General Leonard Wood, could gain a majority vote, and finally on the 10th ballot, Harding was nominated to run for president.  Before the final ballot, Harding was asked if anything in his background might harm his candidacy. Harding did not mention his extramarital affairs. 

His Affairs

Harding had multiple affairs before and during his presidency.  In 1920, when he was running for the presidency of the United States, Carrie Phillips asked for money to prevent her from releasing Harding’s love letters to her.  The Republican party paid her $20,000 and sent her out of the country until the election was over. In today’s dollars, that is about $250,000, or nearly twice what Stormy Daniels was paid before the 2016 presidential election.  The affair lasted more than 15 years.  Mrs. Phillips was a strong supporter of Germany during World War I and was even suspected of being a German spy. 

Another of Harding’s lovers while he was in the White House, Nan Britton, was more than 30 years younger than Harding and gave birth to a daughter. In 1927, she published a best-selling book, The President’s Daughter.  Harding did not include their child in his will and support payments were stopped after he died.  In 2014, the love letters between Harding and Britton were published and are readily available today.  Genetic testing in 2015 proved that Harding was the girl’s father.  Harding had at least one other illegitimate child, with one of his wife’s best friends, and had numerous documented and undocumented one-night stands. 

Appointees Who Went to Prison 

Harding is most famous as the president whose appointees took bribes to allow private oil companies to drill for oil, called the Teapot Dome Scandal. Albert B. Fall, the Interior Secretary, was convicted of taking bribes in 1929  and was sent to prison.  His attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty, was investigated and blamed for many scandals but was not convicted. Daugherty’s aide, Jess Smith, was accused of taking money from alcohol bootleggers to release government owned liquor, but he committed suicide before he could be tried. Charles R. Forbes, Harding’s director of the Veterans’ Bureau, was sent to prison for defrauding the government but only after Harding had allowed Forbes to go to Europe to try to avoid going to prison.  The chief witness against Forbes was the husband of a women who had had a continuing affair with Forbes.  Many other Harding appointees were accused of participating in illegal activities.

Health Issues

Harding suffered all his adult life from bi-polar disorder and had serious bouts of depression. When he was manic, he was a brilliant speaker, manager and politician and when he was depressed, he suffered from “fatigue, overstrain, and nervous illness” that required him to be hospitalized five times between ages 23 and 35 at the Battle Creek Sanatorium.  During this period, his wife saved him from failure in his newspaper business and made his political career possible; she carried on business as usual during his hospitalizations. 

Some historians claim that his hospitalizations were to treat heart problems, but I could not find evidence of heart symptoms at that time: chest pain, irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath or passing out. Furthermore, depression is associated with a markedly increased risk for heart attacks (Curr Psychiatry Rep, Oct, 2014;16(10):492). Bi-polar disorder has been associated with the same harmful lifestyle factors that lead to heart disease, and the anti-inflammatory diet that is prescribed for heart attack prevention may also help to treat manic depression (BMC Medicine, 2017;15:23). 

By 1919 (age 54), Harding knew that he had heart disease.  He loved to play golf but could not play a full 18 holes. He was always tired and had chest pains called angina (heart pain from blocked arteries leading to the heart), was short of breath and had to sleep with his head propped up on pillows. He had swelling in his legs and probably also had swollen neck veins and an enlarged liver. He gorged on roast beef sandwiches, smoked cigars constantly and drank an incredible amount of alcohol. His exercise program consisted of golf using a cart and making love whenever and wherever he could.

On July 25, 1923, during his tour to Alaska and the west coast, he had to quit playing golf after only six holes. The next day he spoke to a crowd of 50,000 people in Vancouver, and the day after in Seattle he spoke to 25,000 people at the University of Washington.  He appeared sick and left the stadium immediately after finishing his speech.  That evening he called his physician about belly pain but felt better on the next day.  His physician claimed that he knew that Harding had heart disease, but was unable to stop his tour. On July 29th, his train pulled into San Francisco, where doctors diagnosed him as having heart problems and pneumonia. He was put to bed and treated with caffeine and digitalis to make his heart beat stronger.  On the evening of August 2nd, he had a convulsion and died from a heart attack at age 57.  

He must have expected that he was going to die because just before his trip, he sold his newspaper and reworked his will.  Just a few hours after his death, Harding’s body was embalmed, covered with makeup, dressed and put in a casket. The next morning, he was put on a train back to Washington. His wife refused an autopsy to determine the cause of death and burned as many of his papers as she could, along with the contents of a safe-deposit box and a large suitcase. 

Lifestyle and Heart Attacks

Most heart attacks are caused primarily by unhealthful lifestyle factors.  Harding drank and smoked most of his life.  Although doctors at that time did not have any strong scientific evidence about the association between diet, lifestyle and heart attacks, Harding had many bad habits, was overweight and did not exercise.  Today we know these habits are a death warrant for many people and that there are no drugs that can completely overcome the harmful effects of an unhealthful lifestyle.  Plaques in arteries are caused by a faulty diet and lack of exercise markedly increases the chances of plaques breaking off to cause a heart attack. We now know that preventing heart attacks involves: 

• exercising 

• avoiding overweight 

• eating a diet that includes lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts and restricts sugar-added foods, sugared drinks, fried foods and meat 

• avoiding behaviors that damage cells such as smoking, drinking alcohol, using recreational drugs and so forth.

Heart Attack Prevention

Exercise and Plaques

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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