Over the past few weeks pundits have played a game of “What If”: What if John Edwards had won the Democratic nomination while hiding his secret affair with Reille Hunter? Reports are now surfacing that Edwards’s staff prepared a “doomsday” strategy to prevent him from winning the nomination. The concerns of the staffers evoke historical echoes of earlier political advisors who focused upon the character of their candidate. Edwards’s story is, sadly enough, a familiar one that underscores the confluence of politics, scandal, and popular culture that goes back at least to the 1920s and Warren G. Harding.
In a Chicago hotel room at the 1920 Republican national convention, Warren G. Harding was asked if he had any embarrassing secrets that could derail his election. He answered no. This was an important moment. It was a Republican year. The Democratic incumbent was unpopular. Americans were tired of war and economic uncertainty. However, the Republicans deadlocked and turned to a handsome, one-term, senator to carry the party banner. Harding, promising “normalcy,” won in a landslide with a seemingly old-fashion front porch campaign. In reality, the Harding campaign was an early success at the marketing of a candidate using celebrities and the trapping of celebrity. Despite his victory, Harding’s response to the “embarrassing secrets” question was not the final word on his character. Scandals did emerge, becoming a case study in the blurring of celebrity and political cultures. The Harding legacy could teach us something not just about private scandals but also about when politicians become celebrities.
Despite rumors of extramarital liaisons, Harding reached the White House. Harding’s secrets did not derail his election, but they did ruin his reputation. Although now considered a failed president, Harding had his strengths as a candidate. He was handsome. Commentators noted his leading man looks, his Romanesque profile, and his presidential appearance. Although pundits derided his speeches as empty, they were popular. Harding enjoyed “bloviating,” that is giving winding speeches before crowds. Florence, his wife, was a no-nonsense woman who somewhat balanced the candidate’s lightness. She came from a prominent family in central Ohio, but had overcome illness and hardships. Her business success and personal narrative appealed to newly-enfranchised female voters. At the time of his death in office, Harding was a popular figure. It was not until after his death that rumors of his infidelities became fodder for tabloids and the stuff of scandal. Today, Harding serves as a case study in the impact of private decisions on a public legacy; one that Edwards’s staff might have considered discussing with the candidate.
The current controversy only highlights the pattern that has emerged in the reputational politics of scandal. The federal government recently announced it is investigating whether the Edwards campaign used campaign money to keep Hunter’s story out of the press. The dynamic of secrecy and subsequent scandal makes it easy enough to find the time-worn parallels between the public side of the two men’s private lives. During and after Harding’s presidency rumors floated of the Republican’s payments to Harding’s mistress, Carrie Phillips, for her silence, but the affair between Harding and Phillips was itself not confirmed until the 1960s, when the letters they had written came to light. Even before rumors of the Carrie Phillips affair were verified, the appearance of Nan Britton’s 1927 book, The President’s Daughter, ensured the association of Harding with scandal, helping establish the memoir as confession.
The President’s Daughter proved a watershed event in the history of presidential scandals. The book was a sappy account in which Britton claimed an affair that had produced a daughter. Warren Harding was dead before her book was published, but his family rejected her account. Although most of the press focused on stories of liaisons in senatorial and White House offices, Britton insisted that her motives were pure. Her purpose was to help illegitimate children. To this day there are calls for DNA testing to determine the paternity of Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Similarly, Elizabeth Edwards’s new book, despite her assertion that it is about helping people overcome adversity, has people talking about her husband’s affair and the paternity of Hunter’s daughter. As happened with Britton, claims of the moral high ground are lost amidst the tabloid culture of Maury Povich offering to pay for a DNA test and appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show. As occurred eight decades ago, tabloid sensationalism easily intermingles with politics and, as some have already noted, it can replace substantive discussion.
John Edwards is not the first, nor will he be the last, gifted politician whose career is marked by a tangle of promise, deceit, and distasteful details. One lesson of the Harding legacy that politicians need to remember is that the lines between the personal and the public, between popular culture and political culture, between the serious and the sensational, have been blurred for decades. Edwards is now experiencing the flip side of the celebrity endorsements and appearances talk shoes as he is being spoofed for his attempts to explain the affair on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps more than anything else Warren Harding is remembered for his personal scandals. It is rare to find a story on Harding that does not mention Nan Britton or Carrie Phillips.
However, politicians like Edwards would be wise to consider that in 1920, Harding campaigned beside Al Jolson, Mary Pickford, and the Chicago Cubs, while friends and supporters hailed him as the next great president. There are downsides to the celebrity culture of modern politics that sometimes go beyond winning the next election.
Phillip Payne teaches in the history department at St. Bonaventure University and is the author of Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (2009).
Republished with permission from History News Network.