The Warren Gamaliel Harding Talking Front Porch Blues

” . . . not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity . . . “

Above: 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue, just across from the friendly local “Vacation Bible Camp” in small Marion, OH. Here Warren G. Harding lived with his wife, Florence, from the time of their home marriage in 1891. And here, on the porch of the family’s quiet Victorian home, then-Senator Harding ran a successful 1920 campaign for the U.S. presidency.

By which I mean: he stayed there. On his front porch. Giving over 100 speeches, advocating something about some made-up word called “normalcy,” waiting for wide-eyed supporters and curious voters to arrive in droves. While he—you know, just stayed put.

And they did.

Over 600,000 Americans traveled to Marion between summer and Election Day 1920. (In such a sleepy central Ohio town, this is no small number.) On especially busy days the town’s population doubled. Celebrities supporters dropped by, too—including Birth of a Nation’s Lillian Gish Jazz Singer star Al Jolson, who penned his own Harding tribute, “Harding, You’re The Man For Us.”

By basing his campaign in Marion, a town of 29,000 people, Harding showcased his small-town roots and Midwestern values, demonstrating that someone indeed could take, as he said, ‘Main Street to the White House.’ [ . . . ] He lived in a nice home, but certainly not a mansion. A friendly, outgoing person who genuinely liked to meet and chat with people, Harding easily won over the crowds who felt they were chatting with a neighbor from around the corner, rather than a presidential candidate.

And meanwhile, Democratic opponent James Cox took the campaign trail by storm, zigzagged the country by rail, promptly lost the election. The sucker.

Harding’s wasn’t the first succesful front porch campaign to land in the White House. It was the fourth and last—after Garfield, Harrison, and McKingley, all from Ohio as well. As if the state, so-called “mother of all presidents,” coats itself in some sticky haze of immobility, in such dense swirls of loyalty as to keep a candidate firmly in place, to bring the voters on the railroad instead?

It’s a fascinating strategy, operating in some realm of intimacy that seems entirely foreign to politics today, and why not bring it back? Sarah Palin can stay home this election season, and finally, we’ll all see Wasilla, Alaska for ourselves. Why let the “gotcha” media get in the way of America itself?

It’s the topic on the minds of the Warren G. Harding Historic Site staff, and who can blame them? How else to highlight the modest Midwestern character of one of the most poorly regarded presidencies of the twentieth century? Why dwell on an administration thick with cigar smoke and spoils and corruption? And where does Teapot Dome fit into all this?

It doesn’t. And frankly, it’s no wonder Harding favored the stay-at-home campaign style. When he embarked on a massive Western speaking tour in 1923 (soon becoming the first president to visit Alaska), he suffered a heart attack in Seattle and shortly died before the close of his first term. Coulda just stayed in D.C.

* * * * *

The birthplace, if you’re wondering, is a good twenty miles outside the “city,” a ways off the main road, in the unincorporated community of Blooming Grove. It’s no bustling metropolis, but prime attractions include the following: (1) an Ohio historical marker on a private property; (2) wreath of flowers on a grounded plaque; (3) miles of grass (4) chihuahua leashed to a roof-level wire; (5) shirtless, big-bellied man mowing his lawn; abandoned-seeming drive-in theater apparently showing the latest Harry Potter. Stay classy, Blooming Grove. Keep doin’ whatchu doin’.

We circled back to Cleveland that night again (Friday) instead of continuing straight to Cincinnati. We had a hot date with my long-deceased grandmother’s first cousin, Marvin Feldman, and his lovely wife Alva at the Cleveland Skating Club. So we saved the drive across Ohio for Saturday, stopping on the way at a BP station in Delaware, OH, for gas, restrooms, and, um, the Rutherford B. Hayes birthplace. Talk about commodification; this one needs to be seen to be believed. But more on that site when I get to the Hayes Presidential Center on the way home next week.

Scenery changes fast when you’re cruising south on 71. Out of Cleveland, towards Columbus, the townships turn to cornfields, corporate billboards into endless announcements for Biblewalk (“Ohio’s only life-sized wax museum”; guess the theme) and something called Grandpa’s Cheesebarn.

And somewhere, out in the fields, an all-caps proclamation that HELL IS REAL.

I’m in Kentucky now. Denise, the mother of a family friend, has put us up at her gorgeous Louisville home, washed our clothes, even taken us out for Cuban food. Her adult son Drew showed me the “sack rack,” a product he has developed and patented designed to hold plastic bags against car windows or other solid services. “You find anyone who’s interested in buying it, just let me know,” he assured me. “I’ll give you ’em for $5, you charge $10.” Her friend Jerry brought us to the Louisville Slugger store. I asked if anyone around here still listens to Slint. I received blank stares.

And Denise kindly navigated us to the Zachary Taylor Tomb in the cemetery down the street, the fourth presidential tomb we’ve seen in as many days (following Harding, Garfield, and Harrison). “I used to carpool with the people who lived in the Zachary Taylor Boyhood Home,” Denise boasted. It’s a private residence, of course, and I didn’t get to knock on the door. There’s no Zachary Taylor historic site open to the public today anywhere.

“But I live just down the street from the grave,” she added, frowning. “And I”m embarrassed I’ve never been here before. Hardly realized it was there. At least not till you came.”

I smiled back. “I’ve been hearing that a lot these days.”


One Comment on “The Warren Gamaliel Harding Talking Front Porch Blues”

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