On this day in 1865, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the future 29th American president, is born in Corsica, Ohio.
In 1891, Harding married a spunky divorcee named Florence Mabel Kling De Wolfe. Florence was influential throughout Harding’s political career and it was at her urging that Harding, who was working as an editor of the Marion Star newspaper, entered politics. In fact, she was once quoted as saying, “I know what’s best for the President. I put him in the White house. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.” With this staunch behind-the-scenes support, Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1915. Though this first political success was overshadowed by his 35-year-old son’s death from alcoholism and tuberculosis that same year, Harding’s rapid rise to political prominence continued, culminating in his election to the presidency in 1920.
As president, Harding was a strong supporter of new technologies. In 1922, he became the first president to have his voice transmitted by radio when he addressed a crowd at the dedication of a memorial site for Francis Scott Key, the composer of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The broadcast heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public. Early in 1923, he installed the first radio in the White House and that June, he recorded a speech on an early “phonograph.”
Harding’s presidency is perhaps best remembered, however, for scandal. In the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1922-23, his secretary of state, Albert Fall, was accused of leasing oil-rich government-owned land at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to business interests in return for financial “gifts” amounting to almost $500,000. Fall was later found guilty of bribery and sentenced to one year in prison, earning the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first cabinet member to go to prison for misconduct while in office. Despite battling charges of corruption within his administration, Harding managed to pursue legislation for social change. He contributed to the advancement of civil rights for African Americans and women. As a senator and progressive Republican candidate for the presidency, Harding tried to pass an anti-lynching law in 1920, which was defeated, and, unlike his predecessors, vigorously supported suffrage for women.
Still, the Teapot Dome Scandal took its toll on Harding’s administration and his physical health. On August 2, 1923, he died suddenly from a heart attack while visiting San Francisco during a tour of the country. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was awakened early the next morning with the news that he had inherited the presidency.