Last July, letters and notes that the 29th President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, sent to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, were unsealed and made public. It is abundantly clear, even in the classier prose of that day, that the affair was extremely passionate. Phillips, married at the time as well, and Harding were both in loveless marriages.
Harding wrote her in 1913 stating, “There isn’t one iota of affection in my home relationship. It is merely existence, necessary for appearance’s sake.” On Christmas Eve 1910, the then future President wrote an impassioned love note to her on the back of a photograph of himself. “My darling,” he began, “There are no words, at my command, sufficient to say the full extent of my love for you- a mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous…hungry…love. It flames like the fire and consumes. It racks in the tortures of aching hunger, and glows in bliss ineffable- bliss only you can give.”
Not bad. Phillips kept those and dozens of other letters from Harding, some running 30 pages long, despite his request that she burn them. The roughly 900 pages show a very different side of a President who campaigned on a platform of “a return to normalcy.” While in office, Harding was dogged by political scandal. He died in office.
Harding’s affair with Phillips began in 1905, according to James David Robenalt, author of the book, “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War.” The book reproduces many of the love letters, and also examines suspicions that Phillips spied for the Germans in World War I. No proof of that has ever been found.
Harding sometimes wrote to his lover in code. She was ‘Sis’ or ‘Mrs. Pouterson.’ He was ‘Jerry’. Together, they were ‘the Poutersons.’ They had secret meetings in Germany, England and Canada. They met in New York and rendezvoused on an ocean liner, where they began the day “with glorious kisses and fond caresses, and you were so superb,” Harding wrote in a later reminiscence.
On January 2nd, 1913, he wrote to her: “My Carrie, Beloved and Adored…I do love you so. I wonder if you realize how much- how faithfully, how gladly…how passionately. Yes you do know the last, you must have felt the proof.” And on September 15th of the same year, recalling an amorous weekend in New York: “I do not know what inspired you, but 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- God! My breath quickens to recall it.”
History has largely judged Harding as incompetent and inarticulate. He was self-evidently not inarticulate! Neither was he incompetent. His letters also reveal his studied thoughts about the looming World War and other weighty matters. He also raised questions about America’s role in the world that are still being pondered today.
His grand-nephew, Richard Harding, gave an address this past July to a room largely filled with historians. He told them, “It’s our hope and your responsibility not to be distracted by the sexually explicit prose that fills parts of these letters, but instead to use all the information in them to reassess the measure of the man. Warren Harding doesn’t need protection. He needs honest, hardworking and fair historians to tell us the story as they see it.” Good luck with that.
However, maybe the Democrats will now give him some grudging respect. Certainly, in this day and age, like Clinton post Monica, his approval ratings will rise.
But for the wrong reasons.