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June 2013

Now that I have ordered some presidential biographies from Amazon I get notices about others. These I have been ignoring. But one caught my eye, not because of the president, but rather because of the author: John W. Dean. Think about it.

Dean on Harding.jpg

Given Dean's experiences I thought that alone might make the book interesting. My only residual knowledge of Harding was the innumerable scandals associated with him. Dean would know about scandalous behavior by a president, I thought.

Get it yet? This is the John Dean of Watergrate, the president’s counsel who would not lie for his president and who kept meticulous notes, and made himself the star witness at the Senate hearings of Sam Ervin. That president was Richard Nixon.

As it happens Dean is from the same town in Ohio as Harding. This book is part of a series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., so it has two strikes against it. It is written to a series template, and it has Schlesinger’s name associated with it. Many of the authors in this series are interesting but odd choices, for example, the novelist Louis Auchincloss on Theodore Roosevelt, television newsman Douglas Brinkley on John F. Kennedy, and presidential aspirant Gary Hart on James Monroe. It also includes one title I have already read, James Madison by Gary Wills. None of these authors is a scholar, though Wills is a man of penetrating insight, Auchincloss a fine writer, Hart is from Colorado, and Brinkley used to talk to Chet Huntley (his associate on the national news).

I will say something about the book itself at the end, but for now let’s see what can gleaned about Warren G. Harding. He was a middle class, small town newspaper editor and owner. He was a born networker who genuinely liked people with an organized mind and a good memory for faces. He avoided conflict and seldom took sides. He was handsome and commanding in his physique. Sounds a perfect Libra! Though he was born on 2 November.

How did he become president? His own political career began in Marion Ohio then to the Ohio legislature, then lieutenant governor, then U.S. Senator, where the personal qualities mentioned above stood him in good stead. Ohio was solidly Democratic but Harding was a Republican. In that smaller talent pool, he looked good. At each stop along this cursus honorum he travelled widely and spoke to any gathering, mostly Republicans.

Nationally the situation was vexed. Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to regain the Republican nomination in 1912 had rent the Grand Old Party. William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes who had run against Woodrow Wilson had been unable to heal and unite it. But when Wilson had a debilitating heart attack in 1919, the Democrats were leaderless, too.

In that gap Harding emerged. He got the Republican nomination on the tenth ballot after three days. By then there was pressure to choose someone and he was inoffensive, and no doubt some like Mark Hanna, the eminence gris of Ohio politics smoothed the way. When it was clear that Wilson would not seek an unprecedented third term, and that had been bruited about for a time, James Cox got the Democratic nomination. James who? More important than James was his vice presidential running mate. One Franklin D. Roosevelt. But I digress.

It was an Ohio affair between the Senator from Ohio, Harding, and the incumbent governor of Ohio, James Cox. Eugene Debs was on the Socialist ticket and got nearly a million votes from a jail cell in Atlanta. H. L. Mencken once said Debs spoke with a tongue of fire, but that is another story.

Harding took the oath of office in March 1921. He convinced Charles Evans Hughes to serve as Secretary of State, and let him get on with the job. Hughes tried to integrate the United States into world affairs to repair the damage done in the struggle for the League of Nations.

One of Harding’s best and most lasting achievements was to create the Bureau of the Budget with a director appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate who reports directly to the President. The President submits a budget to Congress which then amends it into an unrecognizable form to accommodate the interests of the constituents of the majority of Representatives and Senators. Congress sends it back to the White House, and then the serious negotiations begin. It is a fiction because after all the sound and fury there was never any check on how the money was spent. Indeed there was no way of knowing if it had been spent or on what. With his experience as a small businessman Harding did not like that and much to his credit he created this small but powerful and independent agency. But... It came back to haunt him.

The only thing I knew about the Harding Administration was the Teapot Dome scandal. It seems that three of Harding’s cabinet, at least, used the public trust of their offices to defraud the government in a big way. All were alike in a way, they sold government assets (which had ballooned during World War I) at unbelieveable prices to old pals in business and got enormous kickbacks, sometimes delivered in $100,000 units in black Gladstone bags to the office. Subtle, not!

The Bureau of the Budget did notice the decline in government assets valued at millions for peppercorn returns. The Bureau of the Budget did draw the President’s attention to these events several times. Dean has it that Harding tried to persuade the malfactors to stop. Others say, my source is Wikipedia, that he had long experience of doing the same. In any event, they did not stop, and the press got the news and passed it on. Think what the Sage of Baltimore had to say! (That is H. L. Mencken for the slow wits.)

Once one scandal was examined, it lead to another, and another. And it all unravelled.

While in San Francisco, Harding died in office of a heart attach at age 59 in August 1923 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge. From San Francesco, Florence Harding, herself very ill, by telegraph asked an Ohio confidante in the White House to burn Harding’s files. Dean has it that she did this to protect President Harding’s reputation. There is much speculation about why she did this. And that is all it is: speculation, just what passes for news today on the ABC.

The fact is that papers were burned in those days before presidential libraries. But the confidante did not burn everything, and again there is no evidence to explain why. Many boxes were stored in the third basement of the White House coming to light years later when restoration were done. In time these papers found their way to the Harding Association in Ohio in the middle of the 1960s they were catalogued and available.

However there is no evidence that Dean consulted these papers. This book is not based on original research in any sense of the term ‘original.’ Rather it is a synthesis of the existing biographies of Harding, with a slant toward rescuing the reputation of this fellow Ohioan and fellow Republican. Too often the conclusions that rehabilitate Harding seem to come from the air. The strongest claim Dean can make to defend Harding from culpable knowledge, if nothing more, is the absence of evidence. But as that other Republican ideologue Donald Rumsfeld, with whom I once crossed a street in Washington D C, said: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Instead the book tries to cloak Harding in some kind of mist. More pages are spent on his ineffectual and inconsequential dealings with some matters that appeal to contemporary sensibilities, like race relations, than the core matters of his administration.

The book is replete with clichés that neither describe nor explain, like ‘party elders,’ ‘tough going,’ etc. I am sure lawyer Dean is expert at briefs, but sustaining a narrative for 150 pages without lapsing into the vagaries of cliché is a different discipline. Anything that exonerates Harding is taken at face value and anything that does not is clouded over with doubts. Perhaps this is a courtroom tactics but it fails on the page.

Pat Conroy, The Cookbook: Recipes and Stories (2004).

Another title read in anticipation of visiting Charleston, South Carolina. Like K-Paul Prudhomme’s and Diane Kennedy’s cookbooks it is as much an insight into the people and places as the food and recipes. While K-Paul and Kennedy are each rooted to one place, NOLA for him and Mexico for her, Conroy’s book is also travelogue, recounting experiences from his travels as an aspiring and then successful writer.

conroy cookbook.jpg

It has the features of all of the Conroy books I have read: a wry humour, self-deprecating, modesty, a sharp eye for detail, well-turned phrases that lift the mundane to a higher level, and, of course, the burning fires of his dad-hatred. Give that last a rest, Pat!

The travels are domestic as well as international. There are stories from markets and restaurants in France and Italy, as well as such exotic places as Atlanta.

In the course of these travels, at one point Conroy said this, and I almost forgave him for his Oedipus complex. He knows whereof he writes because he was a school teacher for a time.

‘Because their impact cannot be measured, the teachers of the world drift through their praiseless days unaware of the impact and majesty of their influence. I want to fall on my knees in gratitude whenever I conjure the faces of the men and women who spent their finest days coaxing and urging me to discover the best part of myself in the pure sunshine of learning. Because the country dishonors its teachers and humiliates them with lousy pay and a mortifying deficiency of prestige among other professions, they do not receive the gifts of gratitude that brims over in men and women like me when we remember their patient, generous shaping of us into ourselves’ (p. 77).

Amen, brother. Allow me to add that the humiliation is not limited to money but also to the easy social opprobrium that falls on school teachers. For example, ‘those who can’t, teach‘ and the assumption that the work begins when the students arrive and ends when they leave. Even we jumped up school teachers in universities cop this, too. Long ago I gave up resisting these lazy stereotypes from those satisfied with lazy stereotypes.

Après le gym I often pass through Civic Video on the way home. It is a short cut of sorts with some added benefits. The other day I saw ‘The Sound of My Voice’ on the shelf. It caught my eye because (1) there was only one specimen there and (2) the cover art was arresting. One of my criteria for considering a video is that it is not there in dozens of copies. Figure that out. For the cover art, have a look.

Sound of my voice.jpg

Once in hand I realized it was the same crew that made ‘Another Earth’ (2011) , and I was hooked. I have commented on ‘Another Earth’ in another post.

I watched 'The Sound of My Voice' the other night, and have no idea what to make of it. It is studied in its ambiguity and enigmatic in its approach, and I like that. Subtle, open-textured, mysterious, and in no hurry. That kept me interested. It seemed to me it was a variant, on a micro-budget, of ‘Contact’ (1997). In 'Contact' the aliens approach humanity in a surprising way. In ‘The Sound of My Voice’ the surprising contact is from the future....or is it? That is the ambiguity.

There are many discussions in the ether, e.g. IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Facebook and more.
Cut and paste this link to find it on The Internet Movie Data Base:

More importantly, there is a measured review from Roget Ebert, the greatest, at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-sound-of-my-voice-2012

Better yet see it for yourself. It will leave you thinking and it is a vote against Hollywood. Two good things there.

Pat Conroy, My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002).

I liked The Lords of Discipline so much I wanted more Conroy. This book appealed to me because it was about basketball. First the good, then the not so good.

My Losing season.jpg

The modesty is disarming. The description of the atmosphere of games is intoxicating. The account of plays is exhilarating. The attributes ascribed to other players, especially opponents (which made me think of Jerry Nicholarson, Mike Aspen, and Fred Hare - an honour to mix with them) are graceful and generous. The unity and division of the team through the season is moving. It started as a band of individuals but through the season often played like a team where the whole is greater than its parts. The descriptions of hot and cold players is right. The figures of speech and turns of phrase are easy and, at times, elevating. The recitation of the responsibilities of the point guard is informative, and that made me think of Captain Leo. The accounts of talented athletes who threw it away reminded me of Bob Krebsbach.

The effort in the last chapter to sum up the book from the point of view of a point guard, however, is not based on those responsibilities, and so occasions more dad-hating. The modesty becomes repetitive and even cloying.

Mel, the one-dimensional toxic coach, who never has a good word to say, who thinks screaming is motivation, who seems to have nothing to offer but the above is cardboard I am afraid. It is only at about 300 pages of chronicle of Mel’s malice is it implied that he taught Conroy some things about the game.

Dad-hatred piled high and deep enough for a PhD in the Oedipus complex, though there is nothing complex about it. (I also bought his cookbook, and guess what, dad-hatred is to be found there, too.)

Ditto his love-hate relationship with The Citadel. He just cannot say it often enough, well yes he can say it too often.

It is a gym rat's adage. Only leave the gym when you have made your last shot. Never leave the gym on a miss. Superstition perhaps. But more practice never hurts.

I did know that John Tyler had been president. Why? Because of that very early campaign slogan, 'Tippiecanoe and Tyler, too.' Look it up, if it is unknown. I knew he succeeded Harrison, but that is all I knew. Yet when I read Borneman's biography of Polk's emergence and election, Tyler seemed an interesting if remote figure.

He is widely regarded as a failure, no doubt in part because he did not win an election in his own right.



The publishers statement: The first complete biography of a president often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment. James K. Polk's pledge to serve a single term, which many thought would make him a lame duck, enabled him to rise above electoral politics and to outflank his adversaries. Thus he plotted and attained a formidable agenda: He fought for and won tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and most notably, brought Texas into the Union, bluffed Great Britain out of the lion's share of Oregon, and wrested California and much of the Southwest from Mexico. In tracing Polk's life and career, author Borneman show a Polk who was a decisive, if not partisan, statesman whose near doubling of America's boundaries and expansive broadening of executive powers redefined the country at large, as well as the nature of its highest office.


There is a video on You Tube that summarizes the Best and Brightest Showcase for IVth Honours Research. The address is below. Cut-and-paste into the browser address line, and have a look.


I also loaded it directly onto Facebook.

Hyperlinking does not work on this platform.

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