Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play from George Washington to George W. Bush by John F. Boller, Jr.








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John F. Boller, Jr.’s new book, Presidential Diversions, takes a light look at the ways in which each United States President has engaged in hobbies, sports or other extracurricular interests. When at his best, Boller uses the diversion he’s select as a way to capture the character of the individual. At other times, it seems to be a stretch for Boller to find something to say. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 28, “The Bloviating Warren G. Harding,” pp. 205-207:

Warren G. Harding liked to bloviate, that is, chat informally with people. He also liked to smoke, drink, play poker and golf, and play wind instruments. He didn't like being President, so he spent as much time as he could bloviating, smoking, drinking, playing poker and golf, and taking part in U.S. Marine Band rehearsals. Historians evaluating our Presidents usually rank Harding, along with Ulysses S. Grant, at rock bottom, labeling him a failure. He accomplished nothing as President, they say, and his administration, like General Grant's, was riddled with corruption. When Harding died of a heart attack in August 1923 while on a trip to Alaska, the London Times de­clared: "President Harding was a happy man-happy in life, happy, we may believe, in death." The Times couldn't have been more mis­taken. Harding was not happy in the White House; he felt out of place and lonely there. "Oftentimes, as I sit here," he told syndicated writer David Lawrence, "I don't seem to grasp that I am President."

But Harding came alive when he mingled with people. He never forgot that he was a small-town boy from Marion, Ohio, and he took the folksy ways he had learned as a youngster with him to the White House. His wife, Florence, joined him in making the White House ac­cessible to the people. At the reception there following her husband's inauguration, Mrs. Harding saw the servants pulling down the window shades so people couldn't look in on them, and she quickly inter­vened. "Let 'em look if they want to!" she cried. "It's their White House." Harding felt the same way. He saw to it that the lower floors as well as the grounds were open to visitors, revived the Easter-egg rolling game for children that had been suspended during World War I, and, a horn player himself, arranged for the Marine Band to give regular concerts on the White House lawn. The concerts were so pop­ular that frequently the band had to play "The End of a Perfect Day" several times before the guests got the point and starting leaving.

While Harding was President he came to be called "the Great Handshaker." It was one of the things he did well. He held a short re­ception every day from 12:30 until lunchtime, at which he pumped the hands of scores of people crowding up to him after receiving a speedy clearance from the Secret Service. "I love to meet people," Harding told his secretary. "It is the most pleasant thing I do; it is really the only fun I have. It doesn't tax me, and it seems to be a very great pleasure to them." When he met Henry Ford one day, he said, "I believe I have shaken hands with at least twenty-five percent of the American people." Glancing over at his "tin lizzie" (a Model T Ford) parked nearby, Ford quipped: "And I supposed I have shaken the bones of about half the population of these United States."

Harding believed the heart of America was its farms, villages, and small towns, and that it was his responsibility as President to repre­sent them informally as well as formally. At times, though, he was a bit too folksy for his wife. She explained to him that wienerwurst and sauerkraut were not suitable for presidential menus, insisted that he stop chewing tobacco openly in the White House, and tried in vain to wean him away from toothpicks. Shortly after the Hardings moved into the White House, the President sent the butler to the kitchen for some toothpicks. The housekeeper was shocked. "Surely you are mistaken!" she exclaimed. "No, Ma'am," said the butler, "he asked me as plain as anything for toothpicks." "Well," she said, "we'll just forget it." The butler returned to the President and came hurrying back a minute or two later. "The President asked real forceful-like for those toothpicks," he told the housekeeper.

But Harding had tobacco, toothpicks, wienerwurst, and sauer­kraut, if he wanted them, at the little stag parties for a dozen or so of his cronies that he held twice a week at the White House. After din­ner came poker games, with plenty of beer and whiskey available, in a room on the second floor near the President's office. One night, Theodore Roosevelt's perky daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, left an official White House reception to go upstairs, and although there was nothing prissy about her, she was genuinely shocked "to see the way President Harding disregarded the Constitution he was sworn to uphold." Prohibition was the law of the land, and although no liquor was served downstairs, there was plenty at Harding's poker party. The air was "heavy with tobacco smoke," Alice observed, "trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whisky stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand—a general atmo­sphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside."

Sometimes Mrs. Harding poured the drinks as her husband played poker and took occasional side bets at these parties. Every so often, Harding felt so lonely in the White House that he hurried off to the residences of his cronies to play poker. One night, when Charles Sawyer, the Surgeon General who was the Hardings' physi­cian, was having a party in his suite in the Willard Hotel, the door suddenly swung open and there stood the President. "You fellows can't sneak off and have a party without me," he cried. "I'm here for the evening!" Some of Harding's poker pals held positions in his ad­ministration, and he later learned, to his dismay, that they were heav­ily involved in graft. "My God, this is a hell of a job," he told William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas. "I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God-damn friends, White, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights."

The tidbits in Presidential Diversions provide ideal escape reading for the political junkie who needs a break from the usual political polemics. The bonus is receiving insight into character as a result of these described diversions.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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