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John W. Dean

The Harding Affair: Evidence of Racism Rising


Friday, September 18, 2009

This is the first in a two-part series of columns on the Harding affair and letters.—Ed.

Typically, I have little interest in book reviews. But I am interested in the reviews that have greeted a new book for which I have written a foreword. The book was just published: The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War. It examines long-suppressed love letters written by no less than Warren G. Harding, our twenty-ninth president.

The analysis of the letters was written by an attorney friend of mine from Cleveland, James D. Robenalt, who -- when not handling major litigation for his law firm, Thompson Hine LLC -- is frequently thinking about or digging into Ohio history. As I've explained in the foreword, Jim obtained these extraordinary letters through unusual circumstances.

Harding wrote these letters a century ago to his long-time lover and mistress, Carrie Phillips. There are over one hundred letters, many deeply passionate and some remarkably explicit. This was a serious romance that lasted about fifteen years, beginning before Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate, and running until shortly before he was elected president in 1920. Some of his handwritten letters run forty pages in length. Collectively, they provide a new view and understanding of Harding – and, unless you are a committed prude, deeply hypocritical, or a racist, that new understanding is not for the worse.

Prudes and hypocrites do not much concern me. Racists I do not care for, however. Harding is not our first president to have had an adulterous relationship before becoming president, nor will he likely be the last. But his detractors have sought to make him our first African-American president – not to bestow that distinction as an honor, but rather to employ it as a racist smear.

The Clash over the Harding/Phillips Letters

These letters were first discovered by an historian out to trash Harding's reputation, Francis Russell. Indeed, Russell would do his best to do just that in The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. When Russell found the letters, however, it forced the Harding family to take action. Wisely, they enjoined Russell from using the letters.

Francis Russell was a consummate racist, and in writing his biography of Harding, Russell sought to portray him as a failed president because of his purported African-American heritage. (Today, no doubt Russell would be among those who are looking for President Obama's real African birth certificate to better understand his presidency.) In fact, Harding could claim no such African lineage, but that did not prevent Russell from attempting to present Harding in stereotypical racial negatives. (In fact, Harding came from a family of abolitionists, and because others simply could not understand families that believed slaves should be equal, it was often assumed that such families' sympathies could only be born of a common heritage.)

Jim Robenalt's new Harding book, published at a time when we, in fact, do have our first president with African-American heritage, has rekindled that old Harding racism as well. Thus, a small group of contemporary racists are seeking to perpetuate the long- discredited Harding story, and they are very disappointed that Jim has not used the Harding letters to Carrie Phillips for this purpose.

But, in mentioning this, I am getting ahead of my story. Here is how the clash over the letters began:

How Russell Was Blocked From Using the Letters

Russell learned of the letters -- which he discovered in the possession of an attorney who was serving as a guardian to Carrie Phillips's estate -- when he traveled to Harding's hometown of Marion, Ohio in October of 1963. Carrie had saved many of the letters, but clearly not all of them. After reading but a few of the letters, Russell realized that he had made a sensational find, and saw that he could selectively quote from the letters in a manner than would further the efforts of those who were hell-bent on destroying this president – some for political reasons, and others for racist reasons.

The plan was foiled, however, when the Harding family learned of Russell's find, and the contents of the letters. They went to court, and an Ohio judge enjoined publication of the letters. The Harding heirs claimed a common law copyright interest in the letters, and they successfully had the letters sealed for fifty years and sent to the Library of Congress, where they currently reside. Unbeknownst to the Harding family, a copy of the letters had been microfilmed and sent out of stated by an archivist worried that they might be destroyed. And indeed, today we know that that very likely would have happened.

Suffice it to say here that the lawsuit prevented Russell from selectively using (read: abusing) the letters. However, the settlement that resolved the lawsuit was drafted so loosely that it failed to cover the microfilmed copy of the letters that later ended up in Jim Robenalt's possession, long after the common law copyright in the letters had expired.

Robenalt's Recent Book About the Letters and the Affair

Shortly after Jim discovered the letters a few years ago, he told me of them, and showed me copies. Because I had written a Harding biography as part of the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. series for Times Books/Holt on all past presidents, Jim wanted my thoughts.

Knowing Jim, and his innate sense of fairness, not to mention his knowledge of Ohio political history, I told him he should do a book based on the letters. He has done just that with The Harding Affair, which was no small task. The letters had never been properly sorted and organized during the years Carrie kept them; rather, they – and the microfilmed copy of them -- were a mess. They were undated and unorganized. In addition, the microfilm copy of Harding's handwriting is not easy reading. But Jim, and a small team he assembled to assist him, dated and organized the letters, and researched their context. The resulting book presents a number of remarkable insights into Warren Harding, as well as a wonderful story about America in the early Twentieth Century.

Clearly, Harding never dreamed that these fascinating letters would become public. But the private Harding who emerges is clearly a man in a loveless marriage. Harding's wife suffered from near-constant illness, which resulted in a sexless relationship, yet she nonetheless was Harding's partner in life. And when Harding fell deeply in love with Carrie, he still refused to abandon his partnership with his wife.

Even more interesting, however, is the fact that Carrie, a highly intelligent and manipulative woman, was a German sympathizer -- if not a German spy. The letters show that she devoted her best efforts to trying to persuade Harding to vote in the Senate against the United States' interests, and for the interests of Germany. She failed, however, and in the letters, Harding's true, patriotic character emerges.

Racism Never Gives Up, Apparently

If one views these letters honestly, as Jim has done, it is clear that they provide insights into Warren Harding that had not previously been available. Used honestly, these letters have nothing to do with the racist charges that have been made over the years about Warren Harding. For this reason, it is surprising to see these charges raised once again, albeit from the fringes.

As the author of ten books, I long ago stopped reading my own book reviews. And, as a book reviewer (and I long ago lost count of how many books I have reviewed after doing it for some forty years), I have only once written a negative book review. I did so because of my unique knowledge of the events relating to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's unidentified source "Deep Throat." When Mark Felt was identified as Throat, the attorney who was involved in that revelation tried to dress up and reissue Felt's memoir – a book in which Felt had lied to his co-author and in which he had included more fantasy than fact. In light of the circumstances, I explained the truth of the matter in a review for The New York Times Book Review. I could not recommend Felt's book to readers as being worth the time it took to read.

But putting this sole exception aside, I do not do negative reviews, because I know how much work it requires to write a book. So if I do not like a book, I simply will not review it. I will send it back and say nothing before writing a negative review. As a general rule, and with few exceptions, I have discovered that those who write negative book reviews have an agenda, which may or may not be apparent. Thus, I am also generally uninterested in reading negative reviews, as well as in writing them. Unless a book is blatantly bogus (and the Felt book approached this status), and the reviewer has facts showing this to be the case, I have no interest in the fact that any particular person does not like a particular book. The only reason most people read book reviews is to find out the gist of a book that may or may not interest them.

Unlike yours truly, Jim has followed the reviews of his new Harding book closely, and those reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, when not glowing. Still, he has noticed a few negative reviews by amateur reviewers on Amazon and other websites. He began sending them along to me, and what struck him about the reviews, strikes me as well.

Small minds are upset that Jim used the letters not to pull Harding down, but rather to show him for who he actually was: a man of character. Jim did not set out to write a brief for Harding, but rather to discover what, in fact, the letters told us about this man, and report on their contents. Yet Jim's book has created renewed racist attacks on Harding, a phenomenon Jim and I are going to try to sort out in a follow-up column in this two-part series. That column will appear on this site in two weeks.

Meanwhile, allow me to recommend The Harding Affair. It is a terrific read.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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