This post began with a Christmas ornament–a miniature train that is the most recent commemorative offering from The White House Historical Association. If you’re not familiar with this series of ornaments, one is produced each year to honor a specific past President of the United States and is sold as a fund-raiser for the Association. Each year my mother receives the most recent issue as a gift. In 2014, Warren G. Harding, whose term of office spanned 1921-1923, and his cross-country “Voyage of Understanding” trip in 1923 were honored with this tiny replica of the train that carried him on his cross country junket. The ornament came with a little booklet of information, which provided a brief synopsis of Harding’s Presidency, the details of his train voyage…and the inkling of a colorful story about life purpose that I share with you here.
If you are at all a student of American history, you likely know that Warren Harding’s Presidency was troubled. Harding was considered handsome and charismatic in his home state of Ohio, where he owned a newspaper. Never considered hard-working, and often referred to as downright lazy, Harding left the running of the paper to his ambitious wife, Florence. Harding, himself, was a natural politician and glad-handed around the small town of Marion, Ohio, sold advertising, and became an orator–giving puffed-up, vacant speeches. Even as a young man, he was adept at arranging “mutually beneficial deals” that involved favorable press in exchange for all manner of benefits for himself, friends, and family members. Harding was a collector of friends and negotiator of relationship, who found himself sometimes dancing along or perhaps over the line of acceptable legal practice when it came to scratching backs–the terms “collusion” and “kick-back” are often associated with Warren Harding, even in his newspaper days.
Harding’s marriage was also a mutually beneficial exchange as, by published accounts, he reluctantly married Florence Kling DeWolfe back in Ohio, who pursued him, to settle his public profile. Florence’s wealthy and powerful father, who knew Harding so very well as a competing newspaperman, was not happy and forbade the marriage, and then forbade his wife’s attendance at the wedding, and then withdrew all support from his daughter, and then stopped speaking to her, but Florence soldiered on and married her man. By all accounts, the Hardings had a strong union, as he allowed her a large measure of influence over his career and she wasn’t too demanding of him. Warren was Florence’s meal-ticket to power and notoriety–he was essentially just along for the ride. Stir in an ambitious and crooked handler, Harry Daugherty, who was not averse to buying votes, and Warren Harding was on his way to state government, the U.S. Senate, and then the Presidency.
In addition to being handsome and lazy, Harding was also given to having a good time, and the office of the Presidency apparently was not a heavy mantle on his shoulders. Although his public image was carefully managed, by all accounts, he was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, gambling man even during the reign of of the 18th Amendment and its prohibition of alcohol sales. He was also a devoted womanizer who enjoyed sexual trysts and affairs with multiple women, including encounters in a White House closet as the Secret Service stood guard. Tales of full-out orgies that involved his gang of old friends from Ohio, were never substantiated, but Harding and his wife, Florence, were famous for the whiskey-soaked parties they threw in the Yellow Room of the White House, for which bootleg alcohol was provided by the Justice Department.
As a President, some maintain that Harding did some good in post-WWI America. He ran on a campaign of “a return to normalcy” after the disruption of war, calmed the public, pushed programs forward to strengthen the economy, instituted the 8-hour workday, and successfully negotiated peace with Germany and Japan. He also was at least publicly tolerant of all and offered support, even if just moral in nature, to oppressed populations of Americans. By many accounts, he charmed his audiences and the American people largely loved him. However, Harding believed that the most important role of President was that of “ambassador” and he left the heavy-lifting of running the country to his Cabinet appointees while he entertained, toured the country, played golf, and gave speeches. He could not lead, apparently made little attempt to lead, and was consistently conciliatory—never having strong opinions on either side of an issue and never taking a side until all the votes were in.
Unfortunately, Harding’s most lasting legacy as President was his inability to use discretion in the appointment of friends and relatives to powerful positions that they had neither the experience nor moral fortitude to negotiate. What resulted was one of the most infamous periods of federal graft and corruption in American history, as Harding’s friends went wild in the hen house. A few highlights include the sale of federal oil reserves for personal gain by his pal running the Department of the Interior, the selling for personal gain of medical supplies by his good friend heading the Veterans Bureau (at a time when WWI veterans desperately needed help), and the sale of “medicinal use” permits to bootleggers (yes, for personal gain) by buddies in the Justice Department. That’s just scratching the surface, with schemes going so far as the Justice Department’s possible involvement in narcotic trafficking at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
Several of Harding’s friends committed suicide (or were murdered, as some suggest) once their schemes were uncovered, a few were forced to resign, and some were prosecuted after Harding’s death, but part of Harding’s legacy was his inability to take a proactive stance. He complained to the press about his pals, even asking their advice, but he was slow to claim the higher ground, flip rocks, and clean house entirely. No one is entirely sure what Harding did and didn’t know about the illegal goings on during his stint in office. Florence is said to have burned many of her husband’s papers at the time of his death and Harding has neither been exonerated nor undeniably implicated.
And now we come full-circle, back to the train that started this post. In June 1923, as the heat and oppressive humidity of Washington, DC, geared up to match the political heat boiling in the Capitol, Warren, Florence, and some carefully selected Cabinet members took off on a 2-month speaking and sight-seeing tour by train. The plan was to tour the American West and continue on to Alaska, whose natural resources Harding anticipated could support a resurgence of the national economy. Harding hoped the trip would boost his morale, and charming the crowds who came out to see him did help…even encouraging his plans to seek a second term in office.
And this is where this story diverges from my original intent. You see, Warren Harding loved travel and loved trains. He loved trains so much that he harbored a desire to be a locomotive engineer. That occupation may or may not have stuck for him, but for 51 minutes during his “Voyage of Understanding”, Warren Harding drove the train. And he had the time of his life. The story of his Presidency, at least his active role in it, ended a few days later when he suddenly died. He had been suffering with what was considered misdiagnosed heart problems for some time; however, there remains intrigue around his death with whispers of suicide or murder in the air. The official report was that he died of stroke, although some historians maintain that heart attack was more likely. Regardless, at the age of 57, he was dead and his body was being brought home on the same train that he joyfully drove for 51 minutes.
So, I was going to remind everyone not to put off the things you want to do, because you never know which day will be your last. You know…a little pep talk to get you scribbling on your bucket list. But once I learned that Warren Harding was planning on seeking a second term in office, the story became so much more complicated and so much more interesting. How on Earth, I thought, did he think his candidacy was going to fly with the American people once details of his corrupt Administration completely emerged? Harding was charming and charismatic, immature and superficial, vague and indecision, and a collector of relationships, not a leader (or even manager) of people. And the floor was falling out from under him. Impeachment had been discussed. Seriously discussed. Clearly Warren Harding wasn’t happy. His 2-month train trip was planned, at least in part, to take his mind off his troubles back in DC and to allow him the opportunity to spin things in his favor with the public and the press. He did take pains to paint himself as the victim of betrayal at the hands of his closest friends and associates, but also famously stated, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
And therein lies the point. How many of us have been in the position of being patently wrong for a job or situation to which we are clinging with both hands? Or to which we’ve resigned ourselves because we see no way out? And, if we look even closer and more unabashedly, how many of us in that situation paint ourselves as the victim of circumstances or of others–somehow not responsible for our lack of suitability for whatever round hole we are trying to pound our square peg self into? And how did we get in that position?
If we go back to Warren Harding’s story, it doesn’t appear that he was passionate about serving the American people as their leader. Clearly, he enjoyed the perks of the office, but I doubt he enjoyed the power and he surely shunned the day-to-day grind and responsibility. Harding’s true passions appeared to veer toward music, travel, diplomacy, the entertainment industry, the use of language, and the development of relationships. He was attracted to the idea of being a locomotive engineer, but probably could have better served as a foreign diplomat, salesman, mediator, tour guide, musician, or nightclub host. At some point, though, it seems he became flattered and confused, jumped onto the wrong wave, and was tossed up on a rocky shore. I suspect Warren Harding really saw no way off that wave without drowning, given the sheer number of people who “had something on him”—the specter of having his affable veneer ripped away was likely devastating.
It appears that Warren Harding, like so many of us at some point in our lives, eschewed joy and passion, went along with the plans of others for him, and then just…floated…allowing avoidance and what appeared to be addictions distract him and fill his days. When he did finally wake up late in life to what was going on around him, Harding must have realized immediately that he was in way over his head. Not having the ability to plan his way out of the mess, he seems to have become gripped by fear and indecision. He famously asked just about everyone around him for advice in the days and weeks before the worst scandals of his Administration became public, but seemed conflicted in terms of how to go forward. And if the stories of running for a second term are true, his fear caused him to think he had no choice but to keep on holding on to an occupation that wasn’t working for him.
Do you recognize your own situation in some of the broad strokes of Warren Harding’s story? Forget the details, as I’m going to assume that your web is neither as tangled nor as dangerous as that woven by Mr. Harding, but do you find yourself floating or in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing? Are you unhappy and are you, uh, blaming others?
I’ve found myself there often, actually time and again, but stopped one day in a state of surrender and asked myself, “what do I WANT?”. And then I got quiet enough to hear the response–the tiny whisper of my heart over the scream of a mind that craved security and someone else at the controls of my life, directing me and keeping me on a safe path. I heard the whisper…the mention of those things and that way of being that brought me joy…my fog cleared, and I knew what I wanted. The details, of course, are still unfolding as I continue to listen, but I stopped, asked the question, and held myself open to the answer.
Will you dare to ask the same question of yourself? And when you hear the answer, will you let go impatience and fear and move in the direction of your heart’s whisper? Learn from Warren Harding’s experience…really learn from it…and you just might find yourself behind the controls of the train long before the time of your life has wound down.
And will you dare to leave a comment below? I would love to hear what you take away from this post.