Harding Faces Task With Air of Confidence

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/March 4, 1921

Washington, March 4.—The Warren Gamaliel Harding who stood in front of the Capitol this afternoon, his feet planted firmly upon the spot made sacred by Abraham Lincoln, Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes, his voice raised to the intoning of a great state paper that began with a sentence in bad English and ended with a noble phrase from Holy Writ—this Warren Gamaliel differed vastly from the simple rustic who was lifted out of oblivion on that Hades hot day in Chicago last summer.

He was, to begin with, infinitely better dressed. There was a delicate and indescribable touch to the set of his coat, his collar fitted perfectly, distinction radiated from his necktie; he was shod like the leading actor in a Broadway play. But more important than the change in the vestments of the man was the change in the man himself. One found him somehow more solid, more deliberate in movement, more conscious of the glare upon him. And most of all, one observed two large and sinister bags beneath his eyes—two mute and far from beautiful proofs that the last eight months have surely not left him to snore in a hammock.

Romance interprets these bags as signs that the colossal responsibilities upon him have begun to shake him—that he spends half his nights, perhaps, praying for relief from the agony of greatness. But as an amateur psychologist I presume to doubt that this agony gives the honorable gentleman any genuine concern. His inaugural harangue, in fact, showed confidence rather than fear; he was full of facile hopes and easy promises.

But what does flabbergast him, I suspect, is the sheer annoyance of being President—the great complex of little irritations and petty inhibitions that tortures any man in that exalted office. Dr. Harding is, by nature, an offhand and easygoing fellow, a provincial politician quite true to type. But as President of the United States he is the center of a thousand blazing spotlights, the target of a multitude of unintelligible prohibitions and urgencies, and it is all this, I suspect, that has paled him and stiffened him and put those unbeautiful bags beneath his eyes.

I saw him yesterday for the first time since he was nominated. At Chicago he and Mrs. Harding inhabited a modest suite in a far-­from-brilliant hotel and anyone who desired to have speech with him was free to engage him. One simply rang him up from the lobby and told him that one was coming up. Arriving at his door, one knocked politely and then walked in. But yesterday afternoon, when he received the newspaper correspondents for a last palaver before the White House engulfed him, he was surrounded by all the oppressive ceremonial of an Oriental potentate.

His visitors, three-fourths of whom he knew very well, were first herded into a stuffy ante-chamber and carefully scrutinized by detectives. Then, as they filed into the Harding reception room, one by one, two detectives glared at them from each side of the doorway, and directly ahead of them stood James H. Preston, boss of the Senate press gallery, eagerly alert for anarchists, Japanese spies, liberals, Industrial Workers of the World and believers in the government ownership of railroads. Not a man or a woman got past that door who was not recognized by Mr. Preston, who knows everyone. Had a ringer appeared in the line, the gyves would have been upon his wrists before he could have got his bomb out of his hat.

Within there stood, not the amiable and unaffected Harding of Chicago, the obscure senator come up to the big town to see what would turn up, but a gentleman somewhat tight and furtive in manner—a man in the elegant coat aforesaid, already blistered and made jumpy by eight months in the glare. A senator says whatever is in his mind, trusting to the decency of the reporters to save him from scandal. But a president has to measure every word, and to look behind him twice before he utters it, and every time he looks two or three Secret Service men get down upon all fours to examine the carpet. It would be unpleasant to even the most formal of men. To a Harding it must be almost maddening.

But though Gamaliel thus suffers from his greatness, and begins to look strangely weary and dissipated, it must give him certain comfort to see how the business is agreeing with Mrs. Harding. I hope I may not be suspected of trying for office via the kitchen door when I say that the improvement in her since those roasting Chicago days is little short of marvelous. She is a far better looking woman than her photographs make her appear, but historical justice demands the admission that her raiment in Chicago was far below the high mark of the Avenue de La Paix. All over it, in fact, there were the telltale thumbprints of the leading costumier of Marion, Ohio, and to the general horror there was added the high white collar affected by presidents of Ladies’ Aid Societies in the remote prairie towns of the Middle West. The lady was respectably clothed, but her garb was quite devoid of inspiration. Any handy grandmother might have designed such confections as she wore.

But that was eight months ago. The Mrs. Harding who showed herself at the Capitol today was a woman simply and beautifully dressed—a woman in a frock that showed the highest sort of skill in every line, and with a hat on her head that would have got more than one glance at Longchamps. More, there was a change more subtle—a change in the woman herself. Ease and grace and assurance were in her carriage; she showed all the marks of the grand manner, with a certain delicate daintiness to set it off. The new President, in fact, appeared before his subjects with a decidedly handsome wife. . . .

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.