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Warren Gamaliel Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923) was the 29th President of the United States, serving from 1921 until his death from a heart attack in 1923. A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate (1899–1903) and later as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio (1903–1905) and as a U.S. Senator (1915–1921). He was the first incumbent United States Senator to be elected President.
Relatively unknown outside his own state, Harding was a true "dark horse" candidate, winning the Republican Party nomination due to the political machinations of his friends after the nominating convention had become deadlocked. Republican leaders meeting in Room 404 of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago discussed Harding as a possible compromise candidate. This was only one of many informal meetings taking place at the time and, contrary to popular stories, there is little evidence of a deal having been struck in this "smoke-filled room". Rather, since the three leading candidates were unable to gain a majority, the effort was made to assemble a majority for one of the remaining candidates.
The first attempt was made with Harding, as "best of the second raters", who won on the tenth ballot. Before receiving the nomination, Harding was asked whether there were any embarrassing episodes in his past that might be used against him. Despite his longstanding affair with the wife of an old friend, Harding answered "No", and the Party moved to nominate him, only to discover later his relationship with Carrie Fulton Phillips. At around this time Harding, a Freemason, was raised to the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason.
In the 1920 election, Harding ran against Democratic Ohio Governor James M. Cox, whose running-mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. The election was seen in part as a referendum on whether to continue with the "progressive" work of the Woodrow Wilson Administration or to revert to the "laissez-faire" approach of the William McKinley era.
Harding ran on a promise to "Return to Normalcy", a seldom-used term he popularized. The slogan called an end to the abnormal era of the Great War, along with a call to reflect three trends of his time: a renewed isolationism in reaction to the War, a resurgence of nativism, and a turning away from the government activism of the reform era.
Harding's "front porch campaign" during the late summer and fall of 1920 captured the imagination of the country. Not only was it the first campaign to be heavily covered by the press and to receive widespread newsreel coverage, but it was also the first modern campaign to use the power of Hollywood and Broadway stars, who travelled to Marion for photo opportunities with Harding and his wife. Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford were among the conservative-minded luminaries to make the pilgrimage to his house in central Ohio. Business icons Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone also lent their cachet to the campaign. From the onset of the campaign until the November election, over 600,000 people travelled to Marion to participate.
The campaign owed a great deal to Florence Harding, who played perhaps a more active role than any previous candidate's wife in a presidential race. She cultivated the relationship between the campaign and the press. As the business manager of the Star, she understood reporters and their industry. She played to their needs by being freely available to answer questions, pose for pictures, or deliver food prepared in her kitchen to the press office, a bungalow which she had constructed at the rear of their property in Marion. Mrs. Harding even coached her husband on the proper way to wave to newsreel cameras to make the most of coverage.
The campaign also drew upon Harding's popularity with women. Considered handsome, Harding photographed well compared to Cox. However, it was mainly Harding's support in the Senate for women's suffrage legislation that made him more popular with that demographic: the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920 brought huge crowds of women to Marion, Ohio, to hear Harding. Immigrant groups who had made up an important part of the Democratic coalition, such as ethnic Germans and Irish, also voted for Harding in the election in reaction to their perceived persecution by the Wilson administration during World War I.
During the campaign, political opponents spread rumors that Harding's great-great-grandfather was a West Indian black person and that other blacks might be found in his family tree. In an era when the "one-drop rule" would classify a person with any African ancestry as black, and black people in the South had been effectively disfranchised, Harding's campaign manager responded, "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings', a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood." Historian and opponent William Estabrook Chancellor publicized the rumors, based on supposed family research, but perhaps reflecting no more than local gossip. The rumors may have been sustained by a statement Harding allegedly made to newspaperman James W. Faulkner on the subject, which he perhaps meant to be dismissive: "How do I know, Jim? One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." If the rumors are ever proven to be true, by some definitions Harding would be considered to be the first African-American president.
The election of 1920 was the first in which women could vote nationwide. It was also the first presidential election to be covered on the radio, thanks to the nation's first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Harding received 60% of the national vote and 404 electoral votes, an unprecedented margin of victory. Cox received 34% of the national vote and 127 electoral votes. Campaigning from a federal prison, Socialist Eugene V. Debs received 3% of the national vote.
"That imbecile is going to be the next president of the United States.”