Sex, scandal and death in the White House


President Warren G. Harding, the Chief Executive with matinee idol looks, is best remembered for a corrupt administration and a way with the ladies.

AP Photo

We're saying "Hail to the Chiefs" on this Presidents' Day Eve, to some Presidents who are not on anybody's short list of greats. Mo Rocca reports:

In the rankings of American Presidents, Warren Gamaliel Harding often comes in first . . . from the bottom.

Even though Harding was elected in the biggest landslide up to that point. . . and even though he and his dog Laddie Boy remained immensely popular in office . . . Harding today is remembered (if at all) for his womanizing, and for the scandals that engulfed his administration after he died suddenly in 1923 - poisoned, some believe, by his wife.

But in Warren Harding's hometown of Marion, Ohio, the favorite son gets more favorable treatment.

Harding home tour guide (or docent) Sherry Hall sees it as her job to set the record straight, or try to.

"He was not poisoned, as you might hear," Hall told Rocca. "His wife did not kill him. That was a totally made-up story."

In fact, said Hall, Warren and Florence Harding were very much a team during the 1920 presidential campaign, when the world beat a path to Warren Harding's doorstep. Literally!

"It was not unusual for 10,000 people to gather before the house," said Hall.

Hollywood stars came to Marion . . . athletes, too. Al Jolson even wrote a song for the campaign, and played Warren Harding's porch.

Trella Romine, 95 years young, had a front row seat: "When I was four years old, I shook hands with Harding, right over the banister out there," she told Rocca. "You want to shake hands with the hand that shook hands with Harding?"

"Wow! Amazing!" he replied.

"I was scared, you know, but when I looked up at his face, it was such a kind face," said Romine. "So I just stuck out my hand and made history."

"I'm sorry to go all tabloid on you, but do you think Warren Harding was a womanizer?" Rocca asked.

Romine took the Fifth.

There's little doubt that Harding was at best negligent in supervising his administration. Several of his appointees, including a cabinet member, went to jail.

But students from Harding High prefer to accentuate the positive.

"His presidential election was the first election that women voted in," said one girl.

"He was one of the presidents that helped start getting veterans health benefits," said one boy.

And trivia buffs, take note: President Harding was the only president to be elected on his birthday.

He was always described as being a very natty dresser. Sherry Hall displayed some of Harding's wardrobe, his golf clubs, his briefcase, his cigars, and even his shoes. The president with matinee idol looks had the biggest feet of any Oval Office occupant.

Among his accomplishments, Harding was the first president to visit Alaska. He died on the way back. Thousands lined the streets to mourn as his body made its way home to Marion, where the town built a monument to him.

When President Harding died, the scandals that would define his presidency hadn't yet come to light . . . he was still a popular guy. Hence the size of the monument. This thing is big!

A bit grandiose, right? Until you consider that Warren G. Harding was a small town boy who made it to the White House. No matter what, THAT'S a big deal.

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