Warren G. Harding - Scandals and illness

Despite his belated attempts at more effective executive leadership and some rather impressive administration successes, Harding found the presidency to be an increasing burden from the summer of 1922 on. He liked the pomp, the ceremony, the attention, and the glitter of the office. But continuing labor strife, protracted wrangling with Congress, squabbling over patronage, mounting Prohibition enforcement problems, concern over the fall election reverses, and the need for constant executive decisions—in short, the magnitude of his presidential responsibilities—threatened to overwhelm him. His old friends found him more solemn and less buoyant around the poker table. He once remarked to the National Press Club, "I never find myself done.. . . I don't believe there is a human being who can do all the work there is to be done in the President's office. It seems as though I have been President for twenty years." From the fall of 1922 on, he spoke increasingly of the day when he could return to Ohio, and once, in an off-the-cuff statement, he declared, "A great many people think it is a fine thing to be President. . . . But I know better, and I would like nothing better than to be a Marionite again."

By the fall of 1922, Harding's growing mental depression rested not merely on political factors nor on the demands of the presidency; his own personal problems had begun to mount. Mrs. Harding, who had lost a kidney a number of years before, suddenly became ill with hydronephritis in late August, and for a time her life hung in the balance. Not long after, his own health began to disintegrate. A severe flu attack that felled him in mid-January 1923 seemed to trigger a visible decline. By April he was complaining that he barely had enough energy to complete nine holes rather than the usual eighteen on his infrequent trips to the golf course. By late spring of 1923, his normally ruddy color had become a pallor and his stamina was at low ebb. He told Hughes at that time that his blood pressure was consistently above 175, which caused the secretary of state to tell his wife, "We have been worrying about Mrs. Harding, but I think it is the President we should be more concerned about."

Harding had other worries. Scandals of serious import were beginning to be rumored in the spring of 1923. Attorney General Daugherty and his activities lay at the root of some of this concern. Several attempts had already been made by Daugherty's enemies, both inside and outside Congress, to force his retirement from the administration. One congressional investigation into the Justice Department had come to naught in January 1923, but it had not deterred many from thinking that despite the lack of damaging evidence, Daugherty was a serious liability to the administration.

Ironically, the first truly disturbing situation arose over Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, and not over Daugherty. Appointed by Harding on a whim, Forbes had illegally been selling government supplies from the medical supply base at Perryville, Maryland, to private contractors and at ridiculously low prices. He also was engaged in under-cover deals relating to hospital building contracts and site selections. His accomplice in these matters was Charles F. Cramer, general counsel of the Veterans' Bureau.

Brigadier General Charles E. Sawyer, Harding's personal physician and longtime Ohio friend, first suspected Forbes's motives in handling bureau business and voiced his fears to Daugherty, who passed them along to Harding. Shaken by these disclosures, Harding finally summoned Forbes to the White House, grabbed him by the throat "as a dog would a rat," and shouted at him, "You double-crossing bastard!" No record remains of the rest of the conversation, but evidently Harding demanded his resignation, giving him the opportunity to leave the country first. Forbes hastily booked passage for Europe and, once there, resigned on 15 February.

Forbes's resignation took on a more sinister meaning when, on 14 March, Cramer committed suicide by putting a .45-caliber bullet through his right temple while standing before his bathroom mirror in his Washington, D.C., home. At the time, all the public and the press were told was that Cramer had been depressed because of "recent financial reverses."

The Forbes resignation and the Cramer suicide provided natural grist for Washington's rumor mills, but their impact was eclipsed by the sudden death of Jess W. Smith ten weeks later. A diabetic with flabby jowls, scraggly mustache, and large, pleading brown eyes made larger by black, round shell-rimmed glasses, Smith was Harry Daugherty's private secretary and general factotum. As such, he was also a friend of Harding's. Living with Daugherty in the attorney general's Wardman Park Hotel apartment, Smith had used his close contact with the administration to engineer his own scams, which involved the selling of liquor licenses, the granting of paroles, and the arrangement for other types of "fixes."

Helping Smith was a small group of petty scoundrels, collectively known as the Ohio Gang, who used a "little green house on K Street" as a kind of racket headquarters. Just how much of this activity was known to Harding prior to Smith's death is conjecture. But he knew enough to have a long and emotional argument with Smith at the White House on the day before Smith died. Early the next morning Smith was found slumped on the floor in his bedroom in Daugherty's apartment, still clad in his pajamas, his head in a wastebasket, a pistol in his hand, and a bullet through his temple. The assistant White House physician, Dr. Joel T. Boone, told the press that Smith had had a very severe case of diabetes, had not fully recovered from an appendicitis operation of a year before, and in a state of depression had killed himself.

These events, along with Harding's declining health, did not provide an auspicious background for a much-publicized presidential trip to Alaska in mid-June 1923. The decision to make this trip rested on both medical and political grounds. No fewer than five cabinet officers and twenty-eight bureaus exercised authority over the territory, and the president hoped that a firsthand inspection would help him resolve some of these conflicts. His doctors thought a vacation from the cares of Washington would do him some good.

Later it was claimed that the whole Alaskan venture was suffused with a sense of foreboding and that there was morbid talk of death. The Forbes, Cramer, and Smith tragedies, coupled with Harding's sudden decision to sell the Marion Star just before his departure, added credence to these contentions. But if there was no air of morbidity about the presidential party, it was subdued by the realization that the president was very tired and appeared nervous and worried.

During the outward-bound phase of the journey, Harding seemed to recapture some of his old bounce. According to Hoover, as they neared Alaska, Harding displayed the attitude "of a school boy entering on a holiday." Still, Hoover recalled that on the way north Harding once asked him in the privacy of the presidential cabin what Hoover would do if he were president and knew of a scandal brewing. Hoover replied, "Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side." When Hoover pressed for particulars, Harding mumbled something about irregularities in the Justice Department and then "abruptly dried up." When the party turned south toward home, the president became noticeably more morose and his nervousness again increased. By the time he arrived in Vancouver on 26 July, it was obvious that he was again entirely exhausted, and members of the presidential party were deeply alarmed.

A day later, as his train moved down the west coast toward San Francisco, the president complained of pains in the upper abdominal region. By the time the train reached San Francisco, it was clear that he had a cardiac malfunction. Put to bed in the Palace Hotel, he was apparently on the mend when, on the evening of 2 August, while his wife was reading to him from the Saturday Evening Post , he suffered an acute coronary artery occlusion, otherwise known as an infarct. In any case, death was instantaneous.

The ensuing cross-country funeral procession allowed Warren Harding for the moment to achieve his goal of being one of America's best-loved presidents. Hundreds of thousands of grieving citizens lined the tracks, singing softly his favorite hymns, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Lead, Kindly Light," as his flag-draped casket, displayed in a specially designed railroad car, passed slowly by. Back in Washington, his coffin was placed in the center of the Capitol rotunda at the exact spot where Lincoln had lain in state. Ten truckloads of flowers lined the walls as thirty-five thousand mourners filed by and another twenty thousand waited in vain outside in lines that were four abreast. Similar scenes were repeated at his burial ceremony in Marion a day later.

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