I've been thinking about first ladies this week. Monday was Nancy Reagan's 99th birthday and in yesterday's note I mentioned how Nancy helped Sandra Day O'Connor cope with a cancer diagnosis. In addition, C-SPAN is re-airing its informative 2013-2014 series on the presidents' wives each evening (and I'm in one of them).
First ladies tend to be more popular than their mates. There are several reasons for this -- and there are exceptions to the rule. Also, not all first ladies wear well with time. Which brings me to Florence Kling Harding. Today is the 129th anniversary of her marriage to Warren G. Harding.
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Her name was Florence Mabel Kling DeWolfe when Marion, Ohio, newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding came a-courting. Harding was a handsome young man on the make; Florence was a divorced, 30-year-old single mother with an overbearing father, a German-American banker who opposed the marriage because he considered Harding a social climber.
Harding's motivations were likely more complicated than that, as they generally are when matters of the heart are intertwined with professional ambition. But, whether by instinct or calculation, he managed to pair himself with a woman who could help him go much farther in politics than his own talents would have carried him.
He called her "the Duchess," and she sublimated any aspirations she may have had for herself to her spouse's political career. She was upfront about it, too, telling people that she had "only one real hobby -- my husband."
Warren Harding, let's just say, had other "hobbies," but I'm getting ahead of the story. Florence was also a feminist, albeit within the confines of the 1920s. As first lady, she hosted the first all-women's tennis tournament on the White House grounds, publicly promoted the Girl Scouts, and proudly exercised her right to vote -- the first time an American woman had pulled the lever for her husband in a U.S. presidential election. A member of the League of Women Voters and the National Woman's Party, she encouraged other women to vote as well.
In Ohio, Florence had helped Warren turn his newspaper around and propelled him into the state's Republican political circles. She came to Washington with a vision of what a first lady could be and racked up an impressive number of "firsts" for a president's wife. She also pre-approved his speeches, weighed in on Cabinet appointments, and pushed her husband to appoint women to government posts. Florence adopted the welfare of World War I veterans as her signature issue, helping launch an East Wing advocacy tradition that exists to this day in the form of Melania Trump's pro-children "Be Best" crusade.
Florence Harding was so strong a personality that when her husband died unexpectedly in office, rumors abounded that she had poisoned him. She didn't do that, though she had her reasons, but she may have inadvertently contributed to his death by selecting a White House physician who turned out to be a quack (he misdiagnosed his husband's 1923 heart attack as food poisoning).
Upon the president's death, Mrs. Harding burned thousands of his papers and letters, explaining that she feared they might be "misconstrued." The Teapot Dome scandal was brewing by then, however, so perhaps they would have been "construed." In any event, there were other reasons to get rid of his papers, and by that I mean steamy letters to Harding from various women. But that is a story for another day.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.