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I Just Learned A Crazy Story About A US President Which Somehow Is Not On Wikipedia
It's from a popular book which I hadn't read and I bet you haven't read either.
Feel free to skip the first 1,500 words or so of this post if you’d just like to cut to the chase and read the interesting anecdote mentioned in the headline.
So a few days ago, I found myself thinking about the Panama Canal and I was like, “damn, that was probably pretty tough to build.” Then I thought, “I wonder how tough?”
“Ben, isn’t there an American Experience PBS documentary called The Panama Canal that you have repeatedly scrolled past on Roku?”
“Yes, Ben, I think you’re right”
And there was and there is and I watched it.
The Panama Canal really was really difficult to build! Boy howdy. A lot of people didn’t think it could be done but ol’ Teddy Roosevelt, he was quite a big supporter of the project. He got it going and he went down and visited it, actually. The first time a sitting president traveled outside the US!
The canal took a while to build and when it was done, Woodrow Wilson was president. He didn’t go down to Panama for the opening but at a designated moment, he pushed a button in the Oval Office, and down in Panama, some dynamite exploded whatever thing they had to explode to flood the canal. He pushed it and it blew up and everyone cheered and America became number #1.
In the documentary, the narrator says that Tedy Roosevelt wasn’t at the opening of the canal because he was on an expedition into the Amazon. I then thought, “Ben, isn’t there another PBS documentary about Teddy Roosevelt going into the Amazon and almost dying?”
And there was and there is and I watched it.
Teddy Roosevelt was very sad after his third party bid in 1912 came up short and he went down to Brazil with his son and they went on an expedition down the River of Doubt, a tributary of the Amazon that had not been explored entirely yet. It went really badly and lots of people died. Teddy almost died. They eventually did make it out but it was very trying. So trying, in fact, that this documentary ends with a throwaway line about how a few years later, Teddy Roosevelt died from the injuries and illnesses he endured on the expedition.
He had been planning to run for president again in 1920, but he died in 1919. That got me thinking about the 1920 election. So I opened up Wikipedia and read the page about that election. This is a Wikipedia page I had actually read dozens of times before because I like Wikipedia but I apparently hadn’t ever clicked around.
The 1920 election is when Warren Harding was elected. He beat a guy named James Cox. It is mostly memorable—to the extent that it is memorable at all—because James Cox’s VP nominee was FDR. It was a big landslide and Harding won by a trillion votes.
Who was this James Cox fellow, I wondered? Why don’t I know anything about him?
So click click to his wikipedia page.
He was the governor of Ohio and he lost. Snooze. But there is one throwaway line on his page that caught my attention
One of the better-known analyses of the 1920 election is in Irving Stone's book about defeated presidential candidates, They Also Ran. Stone rated Cox as superior in every way over Harding and claimed that Cox would have made a much better president. Stone argued that there was never a stronger case in the history of American presidential elections for the proposition that the better man lost.
Irving Stone is the dude who wrote The Agony and the Ecstacy so he isn’t a total random dumdum. Why was he so in love with apparent random dumdum James Cox?
Google was not very helpful so I decided I needed to read this Irving Stone book. It is apparently famous because it has its own Wikipedia page. That page doesn’t talk much about Cox, but did inform me that this book is where we get the noun “also-ran” from to describe people who lose elections.
I get a PDF of this old out-of-print book.
James Cox: nice guy. Seems pretty solid. But nothing about him in this short biography explains why he, like, needed to be president or anything.
“James Middleton Cox would not have gone down in history as one of the United States' more brilliant presidents,” Stone acknowledges. “Because history would have had no way of divining the Harding calamities he would have averted.”
Stone really hates Harding.
If the country had set out on a treasure hunt to find the worst possible candidate for the office of the presidency, it is hardly conceivable they could have done better than Warren G. Harding.
[With the 1920 election], the American people achieved the feat of electing the worst president in their entire history by the largest majority in their entire history
If ever a nation made a valiant attempt to commit suicide, the United States did in the year 1920.
Keep in mind that this is not heated campaign rhetoric. This dude is writing decades later!1
Here is what I knew about Warren Harding: he was elected president in 1920, he appointed a bunch of corrupt people to his cabinet who did Teapot Dome and 50 other scandals, and he did essentially nothing meaningful in terms of policy in the two and a half years he was in office before dying on a trip to Alaska.
Bad president? Sure. The worst president? Hmmm, I must not know enough about him.
I turn to Google and discover that a book came out very recently about his corrupt attorney general Harry Daugherty. Daugherty is a minor character on the show Boardwalk Empire. I buy this Kindle and read about his scandals. Bad guy! Very corrupt! But to be honest, the book didn’t really implicate Harding in very much.
So I’m like, “Ben, maybe you really do need to read more about Teapot Dome.”
There is a famous book about Teapot Dome that came out about 15 years ago and I already owned but had never read. I decided to finally give it a read.
Teapot Dome? Not great! Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, gave the drilling rights to a Navy petroleum reserve to a coterie of oilmen who paid him back with a few hundred thousand dollars in bribes. The scandal didn’t come out until after Harding was dead, and many Harding backers argued that he didn’t know about it when it happened. This judgment was reinforced by various anecdotes from his fatal trip to Alaska, where he allegedly dropped hints about how he had recently discovered some naughty business by his cabinet. One version goes so far to suggest he died from the stress and heartbreak of discovering the betrayal.
This famous Teapot Dome book—aptly named “The Teapot Dome Scandal“—makes it pretty clear that he didn’t die because of a broken heart and that though he might not have been bribed directly, he did know quite a bit about the oil leases and had no problem with Fall making a quick buck. In addition, Harding was eager to cash in from these same bribers after leaving office.
But there is a throwaway anecdote in this book about Harding that made me do a spit-take.
The Story This Headline Teases In Case You Wanted To Skip The Previous Zillion Paragraphs
Warren Harding and his buddies liked to get drunk and sleep with call girls at a house on H Street owned by Ned McLean, the publisher of the Washington Post. (This house is apparently different from the infamous one where he and his friends also liked to sleep with call girls which was little and green and owned by Daugherty on K Street.)
[Harding] would tomcat with McLean, Washington’s most dissolute playboy, and his other cronies even if it meant exposing himself to ruinous scandal. One night at the H Street house, it had almost come to that. Ned McLean had invited several chorus girls who were down from New York performing in a musical review to an after-theater supper at the house. Harding was there, along with Jesse Smith and Dougherty. By 3:00am the guests were uproariously drunk. When someone suggested the dinner table be cleared so that the girls could dance on it, the guests obliged by throwing plates, glasses, bottles. One of the chorus girls was struck on the head by a water bottle and knocked unconscious. Smith immediately called Gaston Means, an agent for the Bureau of Investigation (the present-day FBI) and a “fixer” for Dougherty.
“This is Jesse Smith,” Means recalled Smith saying. “Say, come around to H Street quick as you can. There’s a…little trouble.”
When Means arrived soon after, the rooms were in wildest disorder. “Half drunken women sprawled on couches and chairs—all of them now with terror painted on their faces,” Means later wrote. A dazed Harding was leaning against a mantel with his bodyguards by his side, ready to hustle him back to the White House. No one had dared call a doctor or ambulance. Means said he carried the seemingly lifeless girl out to his car and took her himself to a nearby hospital. A few days later she died, but between them, Bureau of Investigation chief William “Billy” Burns and Daugherty hushed the matter up. Not that they had much to fear from the newspapers, certainly not from Ned McLean’s Washington Post.
So this is a story about a young woman—her name was Ms Walsh—being killed in the presence of the president of the United States, and the federal law enforcement officer who the attorney general tasked with covering it up.
When bros could be bros, am I right?
Was the name Gaston Means familiar to you? It might be because he was also a minor character on Boardwalk Empire, played by Stephen Root. When you google Gaston Means, you get a NYT story from 1938 about him dying in prison. Why was he in prison? According to the headline, it was for the curiously specific “$104,000 Lindbergh kidnapping hoax.”
In 1932, after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, a wealthy friend of Lindbergh’s contacted Means and asked for his help getting the kid back. He had no idea who had kidnapped the baby but told her that he had spoken to the kidnappers and they would return the baby for $100,000 ransom. The socialite gave him the money to give to the kidnappers. He then asked for $4,000 more to cover the kidnappers’ “expenses,” which she paid. Then he asked for $35,000 more and she began to suspect maybe something was up and called the police. Means was convicted of grand larceny.
The kicker is that the socialite was Evelyn Walsh McLean. She was the wife of Ned McLean—the dissolute playboy owner of the Washington Post, who had thrown the party where the chorus girl had been killed.2
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in”—That snake poem Trump used to read at speeches.
The past was wild.
The Panama Canal was very hard to build.
Don’t go exploring something called “The River of Doubt”
PBS is wonderful.
The writers for Boardwalk Empire really did their research.
Hollywood should probably make more films and TV shows about the 1920s and ‘30s.
James Cox should have won.
It’s still not entirely clear to me why Harding was a worse president than, like, James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson.
The book was written in 1943 and Stone blames Harding for “sabotaging” the League of Nations. It’s not clear to me how he is to blame for the US not ratifying Wilson’s LON treaty but, presumably, the fact that he’s writing during WW2 means that the failure of the League of Nations is quite prominent in his mind. In the PBS documentary The Great War, Ken Burns does not blame Harding for the failure of the League of Nations.
The senator who actually investigated all of this was named Thomas Walsh. A lot of people named Walsh in this story!