Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Warren G. Harding, Private Letters, and Presidential Reputation

As my students will know from my (seemingly endless) supply of stories about Warren G. Harding, I've written Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding's Scandalous Legacy in which I examine his reputation as the worst president in U. S. History.  One of my arguments is that, in part, Harding's reputation was damaged by the lack of historical records.  Without records, historians had difficulty examining his life and presidency.  In the absence of papers, lots of speculation took place.  The story of Harding's papers is fascinating.  Long believed destroyed by Florence Harding, in the 1960s the Harding Memorial Association released his papers.  The available papers attracted historians leading to a wave of scholarship on Harding.  Francis Russell, one of the historians and journalist that descended on Marion and Columbus, Ohio, to do research came upon the letters that Harding wrote to Carrie Phillips, long rumored to have been his mistress.  A very public and ugly debate, including legal action, took place over the ownership and use of the letters.  Eventually, a judge sealed the letters.  However, tidbits from the letters have leaked over the years.  A couple years ago James Robenalt discovered a microfilm copy of the letters from which he wrote The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War.  Robenalt's most startling argument was that Phillips spied for Germany during World War I.

This month the Library of Congress releases Harding's letter to Phillips, creating renewed interest in Harding's personal life.  Jordan Michael Smith wrote "The Letters that Warren G. Harding's Family Didn't Want you to See" for the New York Times Magazine.  Gayle Collins brought up Harding and his letters in a recent piece in the Times on presidential reputation and rankings.  People Magazine got into the act, reporting that "President Warren Harding's Long-Lost Raunchy Letters Go Viral".

Once again Harding's private life is dominating his reputation, this time aided by social media and the internet.  Documents long-ago sealed up and tucked away can now be seen reproduced online.  What impact will this have on Harding's reputation?  Not much, other than to remind the public of its fascination with the private lives of presidents.

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