Published February 27, 2004
WASHINGTON – No one called it "trash talk" in 1920, yet the sorts of words that swirled around the campaign for president back then would fit neatly with predictions this year of an ugly election.
When Democrats questioned how President Bush spent his National Guard years, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (search) accused them of waging "the dirtiest campaign in modern presidential politics." John Kerry's (search) campaign then dismissed Gillespie's comments as "the right-wing smear machine at it again."
In that early 20th-century contest, GOP nominee Warren G. Harding (search) faced a personal attack from a unique point: race. Since then, what the public considers politically shameful has changed — even if the party rhetoric has not.
Harding was an affable if unremarkable senator from Ohio when Republicans nominated him at their Chicago convention. His opponent was another Ohioan, Democratic Gov. James M. Cox. Both were newspaper publishers.
Few questioned that a Republican — any Republican — would win in 1920. The nation had tired of President Wilson's attention to international affairs after World War I, and Harding promised a "return to normalcy."
As Election Day neared, circulars spread across Ohio and other states alleging that Harding's family had black forebears, including his grandfather. The fliers were traced to William Estabrook Chancellor, a professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio who seemed obsessed with race. No persuasive case has been made for racial intermarriage in the Harding family.
"The assumption in 1920 was, 'What an awful thing,"' said Robert H. Ferrell, a presidential historian and Harding biographer. "Now it might be something to brag about."
Harding had heard the rumors all his life and was ready to respond. "They had prepared a fairly detailed genealogy that showed the impossibility of some of these outrageous claims that were being made," said John W. Dean, the former counsel to President Nixon whose latest book is a Harding biography.
Neither Harding nor Cox discussed the rumor in public. "Harding is above the norm in the sophisticated workings of the press. He understands how the press works," Dean said. "He knows how not to create a story."
Some newspapers published brief stories detailing the Harding genealogy without any mention of the mixed-blood allegation. Editorials and letters denounced only "11th-hour libel" against Harding. Most of the press stayed away from the rumors — until the Wooster board of trustees fired Chancellor four days before the election.
That was news. So were statements from the chairmen of the national Democratic and Republican parties, each blaming the other for the rumors.
The day before the election, the Republican-friendly Dayton Journal had had enough. Its front page proclaimed, "The Vile Slanderers of Senator Harding and His Family Shall Seek Their Skunk Holes 'Ere Today's Sun Shall Have Set!" The Journal outlined the allegations, infuriating Harding.
Other newspapers began reporting that Harding had been the target of a smear. Wire services carried the Chancellor dismissal and the party statements. The Washington Post barred no detail, but the Atlanta Constitution omitted the racial element and simply called the circulars hostile to the campaign. The Chicago Tribune told its readers of allegations that some of Harding's ancestors "were colored," a charge that carried all sorts of implications in segregated America.
That Tuesday, Nov. 2, was not only Election Day but Harding's 55th birthday. His gift from voters was an unprecedented landslide. He won 37 of the 48 states and outpolled Cox by 7 million votes in spite of the rumor.
"Harding's position was so strong against Cox it wouldn't have tipped the balance," Ferrell said.
Bloodlines no longer generate such emotional headlines and accusations. For Harding, though, his family tree is not the root for his reputation as the least effective of all presidents, which Dean says is undeserved. Corrupt political cronies sullied his administration, among them a Cabinet member who went to prison for an oil-lease scheme.
Harding, his own honesty unchallenged, didn't suffer through most of those revelations. He died in August 1923, perhaps of a heart attack, just as the scandals came to light.