The release of Warren Harding’s letters to his mistress reminds us of the demise of letters.
Every so often, we get a poignant reminder of what has been lost now that letter writing has been replaced by texting and emoticons — or by nothing at all, if you’re a politician afraid to commit anything to paper for fear it will show up on page one or be read aloud by a committee chairman on a tear.
History is the poorer for it. Nevermore will we have a Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy or Ike free to memorialize in real time what is going on in their heads and hearts.
This makes the trove of love letters written by Warren Harding, to be unsealed at the Library of Congress and published online later this month, all the more appealing.
“I love you thus, and more,” Harding wrote, enumerating the countless ways in a note to his mistress on Christmas Eve 1910. It so overflowed with passion that he turned at the bottom of the page and wrote up the side: “I love you more than all the world, and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.”
The world little noted nor long remembered Harding’s achievements. These days, his presidency is known to schoolchildren, if at all, only in connection with the Teapot Dome scandal.
But for a few weeks this summer, we will note that Harding was a prolific and impassioned man with the time and florid vocabulary to put his feelings into words. The library held about 1,000 pages of these missives for 50 years after the family bequeathed them in 1964. They were written between 1910 and 1920, mostly while Harding served — with little distinction — as a Republican senator from Ohio. His paramour, as the Library of Congress quaintly describes her, was Carrie Fulton Phillips. The story has some added spice because she was the wife of a friend — adding a layer of betrayal — and a suspected German spy during World War I — adding a layer of treason.
Both Harding and Phillips, according to the presidential biographer James Robenalt, who got access to microfilmed copies of some letters while researching his book, were in loveless marriages. In 1913, Harding describes his to Phillips, relying on a timeworn crutch of the maritally unfaithful: “There isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship. ... It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.”
The details of the affair are unlikely to lead to a reassessment of Harding’s character or his political career. He already had the distinction of being the subject of what is widely regarded as the first kiss-and-tell book for his alleged liaison with Nan Britton, who claimed that they had their own sort of congress in a coat closet in the White House and that the president fathered her illegitimate daughter.
Most letters written in the throes of love suffer from lack of restraint, high heat and purple prose. Harding’s billets doux certainly meet the criteria of the genre. Still, though they don’t rise to the level of the greatest love letter in modern history, they are better than many. After a weekend in New York, he wrote that his “breath quickens to recall” it. “You resurrected me and set me aflame with the fullness of your beauty and the fire of your desire ... imprisoned me in your embrace and gave me transport.”
But even before oversight committees, Harding showed he was aware that trust doesn’t mix with politics. As early as 1913, he told Phillips to get rid of the letters. “Have a fire, chuck ’em!” he writes. “They are too inflammable to keep.”
She didn’t listen. A lawyer found them stashed in a closet in her house shortly before she died in 1960, and the family in turn donated them to the library a few years later.
John Dean, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, claimed in a 2005 book that had Harding lived longer — he died of a heart attack during the middle of his first term — we would appreciate him more: He slashed federal spending, sharply cut income taxes and ended the stagflation ignited by President Woodrow Wilson’s policies. Unemployment fell to 3 percent from 12 percent. Many presidents would take that record.
Even if historians were to reevaluate Harding, one mistake can overshadow everything else, as we will learn again when Bill Clinton’s obituary recalls, very high up, his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
No modern U.S. politician is likely to be as unguarded as Harding was in those letters. And that’s a shame. These relics of a bygone era give another dimension to the man, an opportunity lost to more recent leaders who could use another dimension or two.
Prick anyone, these letters tell us, and you’ll find a beating heart. Sadly in the age of Twitter, Instagram and congressional investigations, we won’t be reading about it 50 years hence.
A note: If you’re Lois Lerner at the Internal Revenue Service, your e-mails may mysteriously disappear, but otherwise what you write is embedded on a hard drive somewhere, available to embarrass you at any time.
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