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Our 2018 Road Trip, Part 49: The Last Dead President

Warren and Florence Harding!

President #29: Warren G. Harding, d. 8/2/1923, age 57.

Our Presidential body count so far on this vacation:

  1. Rutherford B. Hayes, in the verdant park behind his lavish museum in Fremont, OH
  2. Millard Fillmore, in the same well-kept Buffalo cemetery as several Famous Names in Black History
  3. Chester Arthur, in a dusty corner plot in Albany
  4. Martin Van Buren, in an ancient burial ground a mile from his Dutch home church in Kinderhook, NY
  5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the grounds of Hyde Park
  6. Grover Cleveland, alongside his fellow presidents of Princeton University
  7. James Buchanan, alone on a hill in Lancaster, PA
  8. William McKinley, under a seven-story dome in Canton, OH

…and now, two hours from the William McKinley Memorial and 3½ hours from home, we wended our way through a maze of lazy country highways and one construction detour to reach the final American President on our week-long tour. We had not saved the best for last.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Normally we’ll choose one major locale as our primary objective, drive that-a-way, and concentrate on exploring the vicinity for a few days before retreating.

We crafted this year’s itinerary with a different approach. Instead of choosing one city as a hub, we focused on one of the motifs that’s recurred through several of our trips: grave sites of Presidents of the United States of America. Our 2018 road trip would effectively have the format and feel of a video game side quest — collecting nine American Presidents across ten presidencies, four states, seven days, and 2000 miles…

Mention the name “Warren G. Harding” anywhere outside Ohio, and the listener will either make a face or ask, “Who?” By most accounts he was an eminently likable President while he was alive. The first time I ever saw his name in any context beyond a “complete list of U.S. Presidents” was in the late ’80s when a Comics Buyer’s Guide columnist named Cat Yronwode wrote an off-topic screed about his post-World War I campaign platform that advocated for a return to “normalcy”, a previously nonexistent word that she detested. Some groused about how he appointed friends and acquaintances to various cabinets and positions, but that’s a brief history of every American President ever. It’s what Presidents do. He might have made a greater impact had he not died in the third year of his term from misdiagnosed heart issues. His passing paved the way for Calvin Coolidge to come to power, for what that’s worth.

Enough of his appointees and associates were found sufficiently corrupt and/or plain awful that they were collectively nicknamed “the Ohio Gang”. The troubles intensified for this newspaper owner turned President after he died, arguably more from the malfeasance of others rather than any personal law-breaking on his part. Most well-known was the notorious Teapot Dome scandal, which posthumously became Harding’s middle name. Further backroom shenanigans inside the Justice Department didn’t help. Then there was the part where at least two mistresses came forward with their stories, one of whom had had his love child. She was dragged through the court of public opinion for decades due partly to lack of evidence and partly to all the focus kept on shaming their impropriety, which is a thing society used to do, but science eventually backed her claim in 2015.

Outside his hometown, Harding doesn’t have too large a fan club. Out in Marion, though, an entire historical society does what they can to respect the Office of the President and their hometown hero’s short-lived place in it.

Harding Center!

One day Harding will have his own tourist attraction estate like Hayes, and then the haters will all be sorry, apparently.

harding legacy!

Several plaques on a stone round table cover his life and times, one of which offers an indignant defense that amounts to an intersection of “fake news” and plausible deniability.

America First...

A collection of inspirational Harding quotes includes this deep cut from his days as a U.S. Senator. Harding wasn’t the first President with an “America First” mindset, and he wouldn’t be the last.

Then there’s the final resting place itself — Warren alongside his wife Florence, longtime business manager of the newspaper he later owned — an upstanding manager, if I’m reading correctly. After his death, her own conditions worsened and she died fifteen months later. Their joint labor of love, the Marion Star, remains in business today as part of the Gannett empire. (I’m unable to confirm if they were affected by last Friday’s shocking round of layoffs.)

Harding tree!

Harding reportedly asked that his be “a simple burial under a tree and the open sky”. And thus it was done.

Harding gate...

We’d love to show you more details, but the iron gates complicated our attempts at basic tourism.

Hardings names!

We know there are more details to be had. We could glimpse pieces of them in and around the obstructions.

Considering no one outside Marion would rank Harding among the ten best Presidents ever, or possibly in their Top 30, we expected a tribute maybe the size of what we’d seen for Chester Arthur or James Buchanan or even Indiana’s own Benjamin Harrison — a simple tombstone or small crypt, possibly a family plot amid his wife and other relatives. Something modest.

The enthralled citizens of Marion refused to settle for anything less than the finest architecture ancient Greece had to offer.

Harding and Anne!

That’s Anne waving hi between two columns for size comparison.

That’s a 28-foot-tall temple sitting on a 10-acre plot — shaped like a cross if viewed from above — made possible by $977,821.76 worth of domestic and international fundraising, including pennies proffered by some 200,000 schoolchildren. It was completed circa 1927 and dedicated in 1931 with a eulogy from President Herbert Hoover, who had served as Harding’s Secretary of Commerce.

We were not expecting all that for Warren Harding, but there it was. All of that is for the Hardings.

One of his mistresses is buried a half-mile down the street. We did not go see how well she was treated post-mortem.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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