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John W. Dean

The Harding Affair, Part Two: Evidence of Racism Rising


Friday, October 2, 2009

This is the second installment in a two-part series on the new Harding biography based on the former president's love letters.—Ed.

Set forth below is my Q & A session with Jim Robenalt, the author of The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War. The Q&A addresses the surprising appearance of racism that has greeted Robenalt's fascinating new biography of Warren G. Harding, our twenty-ninth president.:

QUESTION: In my prior column, I noted that Harding's "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." From your research, did you learn when and why did these efforts to so portray Harding began?

ANSWER: The Harding family will tell you that the rumor that their family included African ancestors goes back to the days when the Hardings were abolitionists. Warren Harding's father fought for the North in the Civil War. The rumor held a powerful negative stigma and was used for political purposes every time Harding ran for office. For example, a professor from Wooster College in Ohio, William E. Chancellor, took it upon himself to write a book on Harding's ancestry during the 1920 campaign, alleging Harding was partially black and ascribing highly offensive characteristics to him as a consequence. It is all vile racism but the Democrats were desperate in 1920, knowing that President Wilson had become unpopular and that James Cox, the Ohio governor nominated by the Democrats to run against Harding, had little chance to win.

The rumor did not die with the 1920 campaign; instead, it went underground. It shows up in early biographies and I think it has something to do with Harding's unjustly poor reputation (remember, he did some remarkable things as president: the first world arms limitation treaty, the first office of the budget, the pardon of Socialist Eugene Debs, a civil rights speech in Birmingham, Alabama in 1921—to name a few). Despite his record, he is only remembered for Teapot Dome—and it has never been shown that he knew about that scandal. So you can see racism playing a quiet but I think virulent role in forming the negative image of Harding as president. Francis Russell's bestselling biography in 1968 continued the tradition of bashing Harding—and Russell focused on the race issue in his book The Shadow of Blooming Grove (the title itself referencing the race rumor from Harding's birthplace).

QUESTION: Did these efforts have any impact on the 1920 presidential race?

ANSWER: I think it is safe to say they backfired. Harding won by one of the greatest popular vote margins in American history. My guess is most people didn't believe the rumors and saw them as political slurs. FDR, who was the Democratic VP candidate that year (before his polio), said that the race attack was harmful to Democrats. I write about this in my first book, Linking Rings, William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America.

QUESTION: It has long been my belief that Francis Russell, a leading Harding biographer, was a racist – not to mention a less than honest historian. What did you learn about Russell during your research?

ANSWER: You are correct. Russell held strong racial prejudices that informed his writing. He was a gifted writer and researcher, but he was anything but a careful historian. I know, for example, that his writings about Carrie Phillips (Harding's mistress) were incorrect because he did not have enough time with the Phillips collection of letters to read and digest them, let alone date them correctly. Thus, he simply makes up facts on so many things about Carrie Phillips. His sloppiness was equaled by his racism. A collection of private letters written by Russell to a man named Ken Duckett in the 1960s is now in the possession of the Western Reserve Historical Society and I reviewed them when writing my book. They show Russell's obsession with the race question. He even joked that he wanted to title his book, The Nigger in the Woodpile. Nasty stuff, but this is the guy whose book is considered by many as gospel on Warren Harding.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence whatsoever that Warren Harding might have preempted Barack Obama as our first president with African-American heritage? Is there anything in the letters to Carrie Phillips on this subject?

ANSWER: No credible evidence exits—it is all rank rumor. One need only read Chancellor's book to see he was driven by race demons. One quote tells you where Chancellor is coming from. Writing of Harding, he spewed: "Big, lazy, slouching, confused, ignorant, affable, yellow and cringing like a negro butler to the great, such is the man who has been used by [Republican politicians] to ruin Woodrow Wilson for the time being and to crash the hopes of mankind for world peace."

There is little in the Phillips letters directly on race but Harding does speak of family reunions and his connections to a famous Revolutionary War hero. He kept in close contact with his extended family and it appears they were all transplants from New England towns.

QUESTION: A few of the reviews of your book, The Harding Affair, seek to revive the charges that Harding was our first African-American president. Would you share the gist of those reviews, particularly the review by the prolific Amazon reviewer who calls himself Dr. Watson?

ANSWER: Dr. Watson appears to be linked to the same guy who wrote a book called The Indictment (a defense of Professor Chancellor) around 2000 and he also seems to be connected to a descendant of Chancellor's. He obviously continues to purvey the racial slurs, as can be seen by his Amazon reviews of anything related to Harding. He praises Chancellor's despicable book and Russell's book (he also possibly praises his own book under his pseudonym). His racism shows itself in a review of Professor Katherine A. S. Sibley's authoritative work on Florence Harding (First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy). Giving the book a poor review, Dr. Watson states: "[Sibley] has also ignored the issue of Warren Harding's Black heritage: he was an Octoroon."

Frankly, I take his negative review of my book as a badge of honor. Clearly, he has an agenda to slam any work that tends to look anew at Harding and his reputation (including your good work, Warren G. Harding, which was commissioned by noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as part of The American Presidents Series). As we know too well in this country, the fires of racism die out slowly.

QUESTION: Is there evidence to set people like Dr. Watson straight or is this blind bias toward Harding, if not evidence of some deeper psychological problem?

ANSWER: The latter. We really cannot estimate the deep damage done to the collective American psyche over the years by racism. We all still suffer from its effects and while I think President Carter recently overstated the role of racism in current times, I think he is right that racism still lives. Unfortunately, some people like "Dr. Watson" seem to suffer actively from the virus. It really is hard to imagine forty years after Martin Luther King's death that such people still exist.

QUESTION: I noticed that Dr. Watson feels that because you are trained as an attorney, rather than as a historian, that this somehow disqualifies you to understand and present this historical information. In fact most historians – which I suspect Dr. Watson considers himself to be, based on his reviews – are far less objective at handling and assessing evidence than attorneys. While historians take a few courses on mythology, trial attorneys like yourself succeed or fail in your profession because of your ability to assess evidence and present information. It has long been my feeling that most historians do not understand the fundamental principles underlying the rules of evidence, so they pile up facts in their books but remain unaware that they would be laughed out of court if they were trying to make a claim or case that were actually admissible in a court of law. Any thoughts on this subject of historians versus attorneys in handling evidence?

ANSWER: I think your point has validity. As trial lawyers, we deal every day with issues of evidence and credibility. Our job is to take statements, documents, testimony, and test it in the fire of an adversary system. We learn to question authenticity. We are schooled in time-honored rules of evidence, which teach us to ignore hearsay when possible, or to know when it can be trusted. So I think a trial lawyer develops skills that are particularly suited to gathering and sifting through lots of pieces of evidence to try to arrive at the truth. This is exactly what good historians do. The only difference is that historians must play both roles in a dispute and try to referee themselves through the issue using their own objectivity. I think lawyers have a leg up here because they know how to take both sides and to try to develop the best arguments on both sides. That said, there are so many historians and historical writers I admire.

QUESTION: I appreciate that you come from a family of Ohio Democrats, which some might consider as not being friendly toward a Republican Warren Harding. So I am curious if your study of Harding's letters affect your views about President Harding?

ANSWER: My great-grandfather was the head of the Ohio Democratic Party in 1920 when Harding ran for president. He knew Harding personally but was on the other side of the campaign. Writing my first book caused me to look again at Harding, but I still didn't have a close view of him as a person. When I worked with these highly personal letters to Carrie Phillips and saw how he dealt with all the complicated issues he faced, I saw him struggling with the fact that he was deeply in love with a woman not his wife. He had humor, kindness, sadness, depression at times, but rarely was he anything but rational and thoughtful. In the end I found him to be a real person, strongly in touch with his feelings and hungering for love and intimacy. He was not the cartoon made out by history.

Given the delicacy of such a situation, I start my book with a look at some of the highlights from his presidency, sort of to shake up the entrenched view of him as a complete failure based on his unjustified poor presidential ranking. I say that ironically letters of adultery may be his salvation because they force the reader to take another look—a full look at Harding the man and Harding the statesman. You started the process, I think, with your book on Harding, and my hope is my book will continue the scholarship his story deserves.

QUESTION: What of historical importance do you feel we can learn from these letters, not to mention your account?

ANSWER: The two headlines from the book are: (1) Harding might have been our war president in 1917 but for Carrie Phillips; and (2) Carrie Phillips likely became a German informant, if not a spy, during the First World War. The first headline to me is the most important. Harding had a chance to make a dark horse bid in the summer of 1916, but Carrie talked him out of it. Had he run, he likely would have defeated Wilson, and world history would have been different. Unlike Wilson, Harding opposed our entry into the war "in order to make the world safe for democracy." Harding thought it not our business to change another people's government. So who's to say what would have happened with Harding as war president? Counterfactual arguments abound, and that is one of the joys of studying history.

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

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