29. Warren G. Harding
The Beer Vote (September 22, 2008)
Americans, in choosing the leader of the free world, usually pick the person they want to have a beer with, even when that person is a recovering alcoholic. That fun-loving attitude is why the terrorists hate us! In 2008, we're looking at happy hours with either crazy POW stories or rip-roaring tales of community organizing, and drinking buddies who love basketball and hunting or whatever Joe Biden loves (tax-free shopping?). Tough call.
In 1920, though, it was a no-brainer: the country wanted to throw down with Warren Gamaliel Harding, who won in a landslide. You might think the country would have a beer with ANYONE in the middle of Prohibition, but not so -- after a visit to the Harding home, in Marion, Ohio, you can see that the guy was Mr. Personality.
Or at least what passed for a personality in 1920. He was part of just about every club in Marion: the Freemasons, Elk's lodges, or anything else that involved wearing a fez. He loved baseball and golf; he played coronet and led the local brass band (which, like today, is considered the coolest thing possible). He owned the local newspaper, played poker, helped pump up the town's economy and gave a pretty good speech, while never really pissing anybody off -- he knew how to straddle the fence, never really committing to any one viewpoint. And supposedly he was handsome! A lot of people say he had "movie-star" looks, which some speculate is the reason he captured the women's vote (their first under the 19th Amendment). Of course, this is condescending and insulting, because any sensible person knows that no woman has ever chosen one man over another because he was good looking. No, they always go for the guy with a stable personality and a great sense of humor. Always.
He wasn't all peaches and cream: he cheated on his sick wife with at least one woman, possibly two, and maybe had an illegitimate child. But you'd still have a beer with the guy, right? He'd definitely know the bartender, so you'd drink for free; he'd probably have all the hookups for football tickets; if you were a guy he'd be attracting enough heat from the ladies that you'd definitely have a shot at his leftovers. Bam, 60 percent of the vote. Cake.
The Marion house is about as authentic as you could hope for; he bought it for his wife Florence as a wedding present, and they lived there (or in D.C.) until they were both dead. It turned into a museum right after. The whole thing is pretty modest -- he was a journalist, and even owning the local paper he wasn't going to be loaded. His wife's dad owned the local bank, but her father disowned her when she married Harding, supposedly because Harding might have had black blood in his family tree. Or because the dad was just a jerk. One of those.
The inside has some definite personality, since it's decked out with the furniture from their marriage and the mementos he was able to pile up from his political years. Harding collected elephant statues, and Florence was apparently a superstitious nut case, so if you ask they'll point out all the supernatural elements: an owl pattern carved into the bannister, a four-leaf clover from the White House lawn and a funky wooden chair for the mediums that would have visited during the seances (remember, no television in the 1920s). There's also a "haunted clock" that supposedly stopped at the exact time of Harding's death, but this is clearly a load of garbage, because no self-respecting spirits would be happy with stopping a clock. If the house imploded and got sucked into a pinpoint, then yeah, haunted. Stopped clock, not so much.
But the place isn't a mansion -- it's like my parent's house, but with a smaller kitchen and less closet space, and also my parents don't live there. The Hardings actually leased it out when they were living in D.C., meaning the people had the president as a landlord. This must have been awkward: "Yeah, I know you're busy negotiating global naval disarmament and all, but the kitchen faucet is leaking." Heh.
Historically speaking, the most important thing is the front porch, site of the last front porch campaign this country will ever see. People would walk four miles from the train station to hear Harding, wearing white pants, a straw hat and a dark jacket, yell things from his steps. Harding bought a kit house from the Sears catalog for $1,000, put it up in his backyard and let reporters use it as a pressroom, and as a journalist he would hang out with them. It was like a Straight Talk Express without wheels (now it's the gift shop/museum). Compare that with Ohio governor James Cox, who toured more than 30 states, was the first candidate to use a microphone at public rallies, and got his ass kicked. Hands down.
But it's tough to keep your reputation spotless when you're dead, and after Harding keeled over the wheels fell off. He had made about four awful cabinet appointments: his Attorney General took bribes, his Interior secretary took bribes (Teapot Dome) and his Veterans Bureau guy (who only had a job because Harding MADE the bureau) stole a few million dollars. It all came out in the wash after Harding's 1923 death, and by 1927, when this structure was ready to go ...
... no one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole. Coolidge wouldn't go anywhere near it, and Hoover didn't risk a dedication ceremony until 1931. Harding was a pariah just a few years after being one of the most popular presidents on record. There were documents more or less proving that Harding wasn't personally involved in any of the scandals, that he was just finding out about the situation at the time of his death ... but they were in the basement of the Marion house, and apparently no one got around to cleaning the basement for 40 years. If history tells us anything, it's that NO ONE WANTS TO CLEAN OUT A BASEMENT. Super-guide Beth at the Harding house puts it this way: Harding was the boss we all want, the guy who picks you for the job and then only pokes his nose in your office when there's a problem. It can work great, unless the people you pick happen to be despicable human beings. Then you're boned.
But at least he's making time with the ladies in heaven. So here's to you, Warren G ... you were a regular dude, reaching for the stars, but in over your head. And when things got ugly, you had the decency to step aside. By having a heart attack. Regulate.
FUN HARDING FACTS!
Signs of Those Times (May 31, 2013)
There was an era in America where people dutifully erected metal road signs at historic sites. When a father spotted one through the windshield of the station wagon, there was no debate; he pulled over, and the children gleefully ripped off their seatbelts for the chance to study the threads of the rich tapestry of our collective past. Then the family would thoughtfully discuss the Civil War cavalry battle mentioned in the sign while driving the rest of the way to the anti-communism rally. Yes, our country used to be great.
You're going to see some of these signs if you're committed to the U.S. presidents, and some of these signs are not near anything fun. Thanks to the steady progress of our economy, some presidential birthplaces are now locations that the average person would not go to unless they were lost, visiting decrepit relatives or huddling in a trunk as they try to figure out who their kidnapper is. It's also very tough to plan a "visit" to a sign, since the actual visit shouldn't take more than five minutes. No one is going to come along for the ride unless you lie about the destination or sneak up behind them, throw a head bag on them, tie them up and throw them in your trunk.
The best bet is to get them "on the way" to something else. I was driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati, which takes me from northeast to southeast Ohio. Warren Harding and Rutherford Hayes were born somewhere near the middle of Ohio, and I have no plans to vacation in Ohio at any point in the next five years, so a few 50-minute detours seemed "on the way" enough.
Harding was born in Blooming Grove; his parents could probably be politely described as the 19th-century equivalent of dirty hippies. Only with more religion. His dad was a farmer, a teacher and a homeopathic medical practitioner; his mom was also some kind of licensed doctor. Homeopathic medicine was a deeply respected field in the 19th century, but as we look back on them now, they were quacks.
They weren't in Blooming Grove forever, as the family moved when his dad bought a newspaper in a nearby town; they didn't leave anything all that awesome to mark their stay, since dirty hippies very seldom live in 25-room mansions. Late in life, Harding actually acquired some of the land surrounding his birthplace, but he was too busy being a stumbling moron to do anything with the property before he died. So this is what we're left with:
It's a sign, on someone's front yard. There's a flag pole there. I don't know who has responsibility for maintaining this stuff, but maybe the Ohio Historical Society kicks the homeowners a few extra bucks a month to mow the grass and make sure the flag hasn't caught fire. I was loitering for a few minutes, and no one ran out of the house with a shotgun to chase me off, so I'm guessing they don't get hassled about it all that much.
Having made myself a slightly better American, I got back in the car and drove to the nearby town of Marion, where Harding eventually settled. I had been to Harding's grave before, but this time I had a better camera; I also had a pretty decent shot at a quiet, contemplative visit, since a huge thunderstorm ripped through town about 30 minutes ahead of me. With the park empty, I was able to use the auto timer on my camera, set it down, then do a wind sprint to get the wide shot of my dreams.
Hey, we all have different dreams. The Harding memorial is actually one of the more distinguished presidential graves, even though Warren G was one of the least distinguished presidents; by most accounts he wasn't smart, curious, loyal to his wife or a good judge of character. The thing is, if you keel over dead while you're the president, they give you a really nice looking grave. So if you're ever president, and you're really thinking your legacy is looking a bit iffy, remember that you always have an out.
Driving from northeast Ohio to central Ohio takes a fair amount of gas, and I had heard about a great gas station in the town of Delaware. Well after the sun had set, I found myself tanking up at a BP. Through an astonishing coincidence, it also happened to be the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1822.
It was a tough childhood for young Rutherford; his father had died 10 weeks before his birth, and at a young age he was forced to work to help sustain the family. There were many long days at the gas station, which struggled financially since the automobile had not yet been invented. Many townsfolk wrote in their diaries of a heartbreaking sight: a forlorn Rutherford, his childhood beard barely four inches long, standing by the side of the road and offering to squeegee their horse's face. Only sales of jerky and pre-paid telegraph cards kept the family from abject poverty.
Fun fact: Hayes isn't the only president whose birthplace is currently occupied by a gas station. Calvin Coolidge was born in a back room of his father's Vermont general store, and the filling pumps from the 1930s are still out front (though they are not functional). Hayes' family (seriously) came from Vermont, where his dad was a storekeeper. Is it sad that I can make this connection off the top of my head? Seriously, I'm getting worried.
When You Die at the Palace ... (April 2014)
My standards for vacation hotels are fairly modest; if the room I’m renting has walls, a ceiling and a locking door, I can live with it. My wife likes the finer things in life, like the luxury of knowing that a determined meth addict would need more than 12 seconds to force his or her way into the place where she is sleeping. As my wife and I planned a visit San Francisco for 2014, we carefully weighed both philosophies. Then we reached a happy compromise and found exactly the kind of hotel she wanted.
The Palace is a grand building, in the great tradition of the Gilded Age. When it was built in 1875, it was the most extravagant hotel in the American West. This clearly angered God, who promptly destroyed it with the earthquake and fire of 1906.
Californians, to their credit, have never let God’s will stand in their way. So a new Palace was built on the ruins of the old, and by 1909 travelers were once again wallowing in their own crapulence. There’s plenty to love about the Palace. The location is grand – it’s just inches from Market Street, and public transportation, and high-end shopping. The restaurants seem grand – the Garden Court is the kind of restaurant where it looks like you should be wearing a coat with tails, or at the very least a monocle. The service is grand – at least five times a day during your visit, you will actively wonder if you should have tipped somebody. And in the grandest sign of luxury, you have to pay for Wi-Fi.
I cared about none of those things, but the Palace even had something for me. Warren Harding wasn’t our greatest president: he was stupid, prone to nervous breakdowns, a bad judge of character and a relentless philanderer. Which is to say, people loved him. But the wheels were starting to come off in the summer of 1923, as Harding and his entourage were kicking off a West Coast tour. A few of Harding’s appointees and buddies were stealing from the government, and the news was just reaching the big boss. Feeling betrayed, he started to sink into a funk.
Harding was looking haggard when his group reached the Seattle area; after a trip to Alaska, he started complaining about cramps and indigestion. His doctors started freaking out as Harding deteriorated further; they canceled an appearance in Oregon and hustled Harding to the Palace Hotel, where he could recover in style.
It was a great plan, right up to the point when Harding died. Some people have speculated that he was poisoned, either by bad Alaskan crabs or his wife. More than likely, he had massive heart attacks thanks to years of overeating, stress, and thinking golf counted as exercise. All we really care about: He died in bed in the Palace Hotel. They don’t advertise this fact in promotional materials, and the concierge seemed reluctant to talk about it, probably because I didn’t tip him. But Harding died in room 888.
If you have the money you can stay there overnight. I don’t have the money, but I do have a camera. I was more than thrilled to stand outside the last door that Warren Harding ever passed through, and take a few pictures. Allyson was asleep while I did this, because I still haven’t taught her the true meaning of vacation. But we’ll get there someday.
It should be noted that room 888 is known as the presidential suite, which tells us something. There’s no way any living president would stay there; it would be bad juju. We can therefore only conclude that Harding still inhabits the room. If you ever scrape together the cash for an overnight in 888, don’t take your special lady along. She will almost definitely be violated from beyond the grave by the ghost of the 29th president.
Of course, if you guys are into that sort of thing, go for it. You freaks.