Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It's a Warren G. thang

now finished:  The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times by Francis Russell
now reading: The Return of the God of Wealth: The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China by Charlotte Ikels

now also reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
now sick of typing: all these overly long subtitles that silly non-fiction books insist on having

THE PROJECT:  Read a biography  of every U.S. president, in order, to see where we went wrong: a project obviously conceived and named during the Dubya administration

THE PRESIDENT:  Warren G. Harding (it stands for "Gamaliel") (no, really), the 28th person to hold the office, in the 29th presidency (because we're post-Grover Cleveland here, so the numbering is all f***** up)

This was a big one! For PREZ BIOS #32, I have completed Francis Russell's tome. Just what exactly is the "shadow of blooming grove"?  I'll get to that in  a moment. (And why have I read 32 books about only 28 presidents? Because multi-volume bios. Thanks for asking.)

Here are just a few topics that I didn't know all that much about before reading The Shadow of Blooming Grove:  Edward Doheny (despite my having lived in and driven around L.A. for seven years), Albert Fall, the international disarmament conference in D.C. during the post-Versailles/League of Nation rejection years, Harding's alleged African-American ancestry and the weird attempts to reveal it to the nation, Harding's affairs (we're talking Bill Clinton levels of womanizing), and the town of Marion, Ohio.

And that's only part of the endlessly fascinating story detailed in this bio. It's a big one, to be sure, but absolutely absorbing. It covers a really interesting lifespan:  Warren (or "Wurr'n" as the author insists Harding's wife pronounced it, all Midwestern-drawl-like) was the first president to be born after the Civil War, but only about five minutes after (well, OK, seven months). And he died in the 1920s. It's mind-boggling to think about the transformation of the nation during his lifetime. And he died kind of early -- probably because the holy hell of his administration was all about to break loose, and I really think his brain just kind of imploded on him.

Fun(?) fact: He died in a hotel in San Francisco, after visiting Alaska, then still a territory.
Fun fact: As a young adolescent, he worked as a "printer's devil" in the newspaper/press office, and after a long night doing an important rush job for a client, his boss gave him a 13-em makeup rule ("the craft sign of a full-fledged printer" according to the book) and he carried it around as a good luck token for the rest of his life.
Fun fact: With friends like his, you most certainly would not need a lot of enemies.

A thankless, sorry bunch. Ohio politics, it has to be said, are possibly the foulest of them all, even more than Buchanan's Pennsylvania politics and the New York politics of Van Buren/Garfield/Cleveland Or at least the weirdest. From the madhouse, Warren emerged from his small-town newspaper, where he liked to jabber with all the folks and adopt a stray dog to hang out around the office, and ended up in the state assembly and later became a real live U.S. senator. And then, in a particularly insane Republican convention in Chicago (think: the birth of the smoke-filled rooms legend), they finagled a presidential nomination for him by making him everyone's second choice, as the story goes.

Why did Russell choose to put "the shadow of blooming grove" in the title of this book, the "shadow" being the alleged and doubted and rumored Negro/colored ancestry of the Harding family? Granted this was the early 20th century when Harding entered politics, and I think that characterizing "was your great-grandmother or wasn't she?" questions as a "shadow" more or less captures the feeling. But, it just didn't really seem to be that big of a part of Warren's political career. So why title the book that? The author sees this "shadow" hanging over the family's head as something that trailed Warren throughout his life, from schoolyard scraps to scurrilous campaign tracts, contributing to his lifelong insecurity. But I think he just didn't have as schmoozy and ambitious of a personality as the other Ohio politicians with whom he hung around (and who nonetheless propelled him to the top).

Of far more concern seem to be the affairs with a)his best friend's wife ("the long black veil of Blooming Grove," perhaps? except this particular woman wasn't ready to carry the secret to their respective graves) b)a gal who was a high school student in town when she first began to crush on him as he ran for office (ewwwww) (they didn't hook up 'til later, but ewwww).

President and puppy
However, despite his flaws (the womanizing being the main one) and despite his being completely and totally out of his element in the White House (he called it "hell" and a "prison" and asked why he was there and lamented to friends that he wanted out), our boy Warren comes off as oddly likable. He was friendly to pretty much everyone all his life, kicking back in the Marion, Ohio, newspaper office with his feet on the desk and talking to everyone in town. And he liked animals! And even better, he didn't like people who were mean to animals, and he said so. He took in a stray dog that wandered into the paper's office and it became their pet there for years, plus he had "Laddie Boy" in the White House, who was famous and popular throughout the land, and I like to think the puppy remained untarnished in citizens' eyes even as the administration went down in scandal and disgrace for the remainder of the '20s.
Harding's dog: classier than Harding?

I'm sort of proud of Warren for being at the top of the predictions when I type "Warren" into Wikipedia's search box, above Buffett, Beatty, Zevon, Ellis (I had to check who that even was-- a comics author, apparently), and Burger. I mean, Harding's definitely one of the more obscure presidents, and his most famous thing is probably Teapot Dome, which really wasn't even his doing. Truth be told, my memories of the scandal from AP History class were cloudy, so this book was a good refresher. But I think Warren was more oblivious and gullible and trusting than anything.  Albert Fall and Doheny on the other hand...they definitely got up to some stuff, in pursuit of oil and money. Outright swindling and bribery...who knows? Now, I feel a small connection to Teapot Dome, because the rock and oil fields in question are in the land of my birthplace, Natrona County, Wyoming, north of Casper.  It's a little known fact that I was born in Casper, in Natrona County Hospital (we moved to Arizona by the time I was two, though).  So I'm not opposed to anything that brings fame or even infamy to my native land...but unfortunately, as with so many of these mountains and geological formations in the West that "look like" something, Teapot Rock doesn't look all that much like a teapot. Apparently the "handle" and  "spout" have been eroded away or something.  What do you think?
Teapot Rock, of Teapot Dome fame

But it never would have become the greatest pre-Watergate presidential scandal without such a nice ring to the name, of course.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book for those who want to delve into an interesting life while learning a bit of history, indulging in nostalgia about turn-of-the-century Americana, and marveling at what politicians get up to in those smoke-filled rooms.

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