Character sketches



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character sketches

Warren G. Harding (1865–1923)


This simple, genial president was deeply mourned when he died in 1923, just before the news broke of the thoroughgoing corruption in his administration.

Rumors throughout Harding’s career that he was part black were based only on hometown gossip and the fact that one of his great-grandparents had lived in a black neighborhood. There is no historical evidence that he had any black ancestors.

Harding was happy as a small-town editor and poker-playing U.S. senator, although his ambitious wife, “The Duchess,” constantly pushed him to do greater things. Harding maintained several mistresses, and one of them—Nan Britton of Marion, Ohio—bore a child by him in 1919. As president, he would frequently sneak away to play poker with the “Ohio gang” at “the little green house on K street.”

Harding was deeply distressed as he learned of his cronies’ corrupt dealings. He seemed near collapse during his presidential trip to Alaska, on which he died, and frequently asked Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover what a president should do if there was dishonesty around him.



Quote: “My God, this is a hell of a job. I have no troubles with my enemies…but my God-damn friends!…” (1923)

REFERENCES: Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era (1969); Eugene P. Trani, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (1977).


Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933)


Coolidge’s rectitude and old-fashioned virtues provided welcome relief from the Harding scandals, while also offering the public a reassuring counterpoint to the wild cultural changes of the 1920s.

At Amherst College, Coolidge astounded classmates by constantly seeking ways to live more cheaply. He was personally kind and generous, but he was frequently moody and had few close friends. Even after he became a successful attorney, he used a party-line phone and refused to buy a car because it was too expensive.

Coolidge was generally ignorant of history and political theory, but he loved classical languages and sometimes translated Latin literary works into English. He had a malicious sense of humor and loved to play practical jokes like ringing for White House servants and then hiding from them. His poker-faced silence was the subject of much commentary and humor. When writer Dorothy Parker was told that Coolidge had died, she said, “How could they tell?”

Quote: “There are two ways to be self-respecting: to spend less than you make, and to make more than you spend.” (1925)

REFERENCES: Hendrik Booraem, The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge and His World (1994); Robert Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998).


Herbert Hoover (1874–1964)


Hoover was an international hero as food relief administrator during World War I and a popular secretary of commerce, but his single term as president made him a permanent symbol of economic and political disaster.

Hoover was the product of a strong Iowa Quaker background. His parents died before he was ten, and he was then raised by an uncle in Oregon. After graduating from Stanford, he lived outside the United States for nearly twenty years while working as an engineer and businessman. One of his interests was the history of mining, and he collected and had translated Renaissance classics on the subject.

As a public official, Hoover developed a large staff of deferential subordinates who called him “The Chief” and generated favorable publicity on his behalf. He was stiff, formal, humorless, and unyielding in his opinions once he had taken a stand. Those who worked intimately with him always liked him, but he was comfortable only in the company of people who he knew were on his side.

Quote: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.… We have not yet reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” (Convention acceptance speech, 1928)

REFERENCE: Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975).





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