Bell’s Influence on National Geographic Society Often Overlooked

An archive of documents from the early days of Bell Telephone Company – including correspondence by Gardiner G. Hubbard, Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law – sold for $10,157 at an October 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 2013, Nancy and I took a cruise from New York City to Montreal. On Sept. 23, we had the great pleasure of touring the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. We were struck by its unusual design, which is based on the tetrahedron form used in his many flight experiments with kites. There were also numerous original artifacts, photographs and exhibits of his groundbreaking scientific accomplishments.

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell (1847-1922) was awarded patent #174465 just four days after his 29th birthday for the first practical telephone – “the most valuable single patent ever issued” in any country. Our guide informed us that Bell would not allow a telephone in his study or laboratory since he considered it a distraction to his reading and experiments. I was aware that both his mother and wife were deaf and this had a profound effect on his passion for working on sound, speech and hearing. What surprised me was the breadth of his scientific achievements. He was awarded 18 patents and collaborated on another 12 in medicine, aeronautics, genetics, electricity, sound and marine engineering.

Another surprise was that his wife Mabel was the daughter of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, founder and first president of the National Geographic Society (founded in 1888) and also the first president of Bell Telephone Company (later AT&T). Although AGB (he got a middle name only after constantly nagging his father) was not a founder of National Geographic, he was its second president, following his father-in-law. This was organizational incest on a scale that rivaled the British monarchy.

But the result was an organization that has given several generations a certain sense of where we are and where we want to go. Commanders-in-chief, explorers, schoolchildren and even daydreamers have put their full trust in the splendid maps of the National Geographic Society and their brilliant cartographers. The elegant and clearly legible typefaces for place names, one source of the map’s mystique, were designed by the magazine’s staff in the 1930s.

It was founded in Washington, D.C., at the Cosmos Club, another venerable organization founded in 1878 and boasting of membership by three presidents, two vice presidents, 12 Supreme Court justices, and 36 Nobel and 61 Pulitzer Prize winners (they don’t bother with ordinary U.S. senators).

During World War II, National Geographic maps were at the epicenter of the action, thanks in part to a U.S. president who was deeply interested in geography. The society had furnished Franklin D. Roosevelt with a cabinet that was mounted on the wall behind the desk in his private White House study. Maps of continents and oceans could be pulled down by the president like window shades; they were in constant use throughout the war.

In the early winter of 1942, President Roosevelt urged the American people to have a world map available for his next fireside chat, scheduled for the evening of Feb. 23. FDR told his aides, “I’m going to speak about strange places that many have never heard of – places that are now the battleground for civilization. … I want to explain to the people something about geography – what our problem is and what the overall strategy of the war has to be. I want to tell it to them in simple terms of ABC so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture. … If they understand the problem and what we are driving at, I am sure that they can take any kind of news on the chin.”

There was an unprecedented run on maps and atlases. The audience, more than 80 percent of the country’s adult population, was the largest for any geography lesson in history.

The National Geographic Society went on, expanding the scope of its focus – with maps for the amazing Mount Everest to outer space and the ocean floor. As the Society’s former chief cartographer put it: “I like to think that National Geographic maps are the crown jewels of the mapping world.”

He was right, until Google maps created a new technology in need of its own headware.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum is Magically Restorative

Paintings by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) are found in museums such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. This Bouguereau piece, Fishing For Frogs, 1882, realized $1.76 million at a May 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In the opening paragraph of his handwritten letter dated June 22, 1969, to Velma Kimbell, the architect Louis Kahn wrote, “I hope you will find my work beautiful and meaningful.”

Kimbell and her late husband wanted a great museum for the city of Fort Worth, Texas. They were part of that sliver of truly rich willing to give up artistic power to people who knew more. The Kimbells would pay for the entire museum, donate the nucleus of a fine collection, and leave an endowment of such magnitude that the Kimbell Art Museum would be among the handful of museums able to aggressively buy the best.

Louis Kahn

What they did, to pay them the highest compliment, was equivalent to what the Mellon family did 30 years earlier. Few people in the history of this nation have used their fortune on behalf of the arts as the Mellons, starting with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 offering his superb collection and funds for a new museum to house it.

When it opened to the public on March 17, 1941 (Mellon was dead), the world-class collection consisted of 120-plus paintings and 26 sculptures given by his son Paul Mellon, another giant in the world of art philanthropy. Over the ensuing years, Paul and his wife Bunny donated more than 1,000 works of art! Bunny was famous for entertaining and insisted on serving bowls of perfect Lays chips (her secret was to have servants pick out broken chips).

Louis Kahn’s letter to Velma Kimbell, written four days before groundbreaking ceremonies (he could not attend), was polite, but was NOT representative of a deeply held conviction. “Even when serving the dictates of individuals, you still have no client in my sense of the word. The client is human nature.”

No museum has served that usually overlooked client better!

Kahn wanted light to have the luminosity of silver as it reflected off the distinctive cycloidal concrete vaults. The light provides a sense of the time of day (it reminds me of beach light) but avoids the enemy of art: direct sunlight – especially the ferocious light of Texas summers. Instead of inducing fatigue, as most museums do, the Kimbell is restorative. “The feeling of being home and safe,” said Kahn, explaining his own magnificent piece of art the museum represents.

The Kimbell is noted for the wash of silvery natural light across its vaulted gallery ceilings.

A prime, early policy directive was definitive excellence, not size of collection. With a collection size of 350 superb European Old Masters, that goal has been accomplished.

Personally, I prefer the nearby Amon Carter Museum for three small reasons. First, I prefer its Frontier West tone. Second, I am jaded about “Old European Masters” after living in Central London for five years (yawn). Third, it gives me an easy segue into two apocryphal stories about the Carters.

Amon Carter Sr. (1879-1955) was so disdainful of Dallas that he would bring a sack lunch so he would not have to spend any money when he visited the city. “Fort Worth is where the West begins – and Dallas is where the East peters out.”

Although I have owned coins and currency that Amon Carter Jr. once owned, I never met him. He died of a heart attack in 1982. But one of his advisers, a Dallas coin dealer, told me they were in a bar in NYC when a loudmouth asked Amon how big his Texas ranch was and scoffed when Amon replied 30 acres.

“Thirty acres? I thought all you Texans had BIG ranches. Where is yours?”

Amon answered softly. “All of downtown Fort Worth.”

Not all acreage is born equally.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Look to 1935 if Goal is Infrastructure Projects That Work

Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the Oct. 19, 1935, edition of The Saturday Evening Post sold for $137,000 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“The social objective is to try to do what any honest government … would do: to try to increase the security and happiness of a larger number of people in all occupations of life and in all parts of the country … to give them assurance that they are not going to starve in their old age.”

Although this could have been taken directly from any Bernie Sanders speech anytime over the past 10 years … it was actually a response from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 7, 1935, when answering a question about the social role of government.

This was the same week that Babe Ruth announced his retirement from the Boston Braves, only six days after he hit three home runs in the last game he played. It was the end of an era and it came right in the middle of the Great Depression.

Bread lines were still long and double-digit unemployment was accepted as the new normal. People were generally depressed and hope was a rare commodity.

Technological unemployment threatened to permanently engulf huge sectors of the workforce, particularly less skilled and older workers in general. Observers suggested that deep structural changes in the economy meant that the majority of those over 45 would never get their jobs back. Lorena Hickok (Eleanor’s paramour) opined that, “It looks like we’re in this relief business for a long, long time.” The president’s advisor, Harry Hopkins, was soon speaking of workers who had passed into “an occupational oblivion from which they will never be rescued… We shall have with us large numbers of the unemployed. Intelligent people have long since left behind them.” Sound familiar?

Even FDR chipped in with his “Fireside Chat” on June 28, 1934: “For many years to come, we shall be engaged in rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of our American families … The need for relief will continue for a long time; we may as well recognize that fact.”

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law on April 18, 1935. The bill approved the largest peacetime appropriation in American history. This single appropriation authorized more spending than total federal revenues in 1934; with a special $4 billion earmarked for work relief and public works construction. Roosevelt and the bill’s architects did NOT believe they were addressing a transient disruption in the labor market, but a long-term (perhaps permanent) inability of the private economy to provide employment for all who wanted to work.

Thus were born many federal agencies, with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) the largest. The WPA employed 3 million people in the first year and in eight years it put 8.5 million people to work at a cost of $11 billion. WPA workers built 500,000 miles of highways, 100,000 bridges, as many public buildings, plus 8,000 parks.

When the current administration and Congress debate “infrastructure projects,” they would be well served to study this period in American history. These folks really knew how to do it!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Trailblazing Politicians Broke Glass Ceilings More Than 100 Years Ago

Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1933 was appointed director of the U.S. Mint, the first woman to hold that position.

By Jim O’Neal

The history of female governors in the United States dates to 1909. Carolyn Shelton served as acting governor of Oregon for a weekend to fill a temporary void.

Next was Soledad Chacón, who served as New Mexico’s acting governor for two weeks in 1924. (She also has claim to the first Hispanic woman elected to statewide office in the U.S.) This was another temporary situation, but Chacón claimed responsibility for “substantial duties.”

The first woman actually elected governor was Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming – elected in 1924 (four years after U.S. women won the right to vote) and assuming office in 1925. Her husband had been elected governor in 1923, but he died in 1924. Nellie Ross formally won the next election despite refusing to campaign.

Ross remains the only woman elected governor of Wyoming; she lost her reelection in 1926. However, her short stint served as a springboard to national politics. At the 1928 Democratic National Convention, she received 11 votes for VP on the first ballot. This convention was held in Sam Houston Hall in Houston, the first one held in the South since the Civil War.

New York Governor Alfred “Al” Smith ended up with the Democratic Party presidential nomination, despite being a Roman Catholic. His running mate, Joseph Robinson from Arkansas, holds the distinction of being the last U.S. Senator selected by a state legislature. (The 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, changed the process by establishing a popular-vote selection.)

Later, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ross to director of the U.S. Mint. She was the first woman to hold that position as well. She died in 1977 at age 101, the oldest ex-governor (at the time).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tidbits: Bluebonnets, Sherlock Holmes, Bums and Booze

Julian Onderdonk’s Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets sold for $437,000 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The bluebonnets in Texas are beginning to fade, but two names always come to mind when talking about the flowers: Claudia Alta Taylor (better known as “Lady Bird” Johnson ) and “Cactus Jack” Garner, who lobbied to make the prickly pear cactus the state flower (and lost).

Garner became the 32nd vice president of the United States in 1932 and concurrently was elected back to the House. So for one day, on March 4, 1933, he was both Psident of the Senate and Speaker of the House.

Earlier on Feb. 15, 1933, as VP-elect, he came close to being president when FDR just missed being assassinated in Miami.

Garner served two full terms as VP and died 15 days before his 99th birthday – making him the longest-living VP.

“A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was published in 1887 in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual – with only 11 copies known to exist today.

Joe Louis by Irving Penn

The last heavyweight championship bout scheduled for 20 rounds was held in Detroit in 1941. Joe Louis TKO’d Abe Simon in 13 rounds. Simon was a member of Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club” – 13 opponents Louis defeated between 1939 and 1941.

After leaving boxing, Simon went to Hollywood, where he won roles in On the Waterfront, Never Love a Stranger and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Our 35th vice president, Kentucky lawyer Alben W. Barkley, was elected with Harry S. Truman in 1948 and is still the only one with the middle name of William (he was actually born Willie Alben Barkley).

One of his career highlights was his keynote address at the 1932 Democratic Convention, where he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and denounced Prohibition (Kentucky bourbon?). It worked … FDR won and prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Although the oldest VP elected at age 71 (Joe Biden was 65 in 2008), Barkley is the only one to marry while in office … a woman half his age. Later, he denounced the 80th Congress as “Do Nothing,” but Truman often gets credit for the phrase.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Nixon Was Firmly in Control … Until Dark Clouds Began Forming

A signed Richard Nixon photograph sold for $657.25 in February 2006.

By Jim O’Neal

By the time 1972 rolled around, the presidential campaign was really a story about President Nixon’s growing invincibility. In the summer, every poll gave him about 60 percent of the vote and even his tremendous financial advantage – $60 million vs. $25 million for the Dems – had little to do with the probable outcome.

Nixon was elected four years earlier on a tide of protest against the Vietnam War, but ending it seemed to be taking an eternity. 17,000 more Americans had been killed while he was trying, but by the beginning of 1972, he had reduced U.S. troop levels from 550,000 to 139,000. Importantly, the Pentagon’s weekly casualty list of 300 had dropped to zero by Sept. 21, 1972.

The sum of Nixon’s skills was a united party, led by a nominee who was now identified as the candidate of peace and détente. He had two superfluous opponents for the GOP nomination and one, Paul “Pete” McClosky from California, became an arcane trivia answer by winning 1 delegate while Nixon swept up all the rest … 1,347.

The convention stagecraft was awesome and Nixon had eliminated all the suspense by announcing his intention to keep Spiro Agnew on the ticket as his VP. (Agnew won 1,345 votes vs. one for TV journalist David Brinkley; NBC staffers quickly started wearing “Brinkley for Vice President” buttons as a joke.)

This marked the fifth time Nixon had been on the ballot – in 1952 and 1956 for VP, and in 1960, 1968 and 1972 for president. This tied FDR, who had one VP (1920) and four straight as president (1932-1944). Ronald Reagan chaired the convention and Nelson Rockefeller put Nixon’s name in nomination. GOP speakers touted their unity and hammered at the disarray on the other side.

In 1972, campaign material included George Wallace license plates.

The Democrats were still absorbed in savage internecine feuds and the battle to head the party was a melee. George McGovern very adroitly managed to make himself a dark horse to keep the glaring national spotlight off his nascent campaign. In the Florida primary, facing 11 presidential candidates, George Wallace was the big winner as a surprise candidate. He loudly crowed, “We beat all the face cards in the Democratic deck!”

By the middle of May, Edmund Muskie was out of it and the marathon was narrowing to a three-way contest between Wallace, McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. Then in May 1972 while in Maryland, Wallace was hit by a brick in Frederick, eggs in Hagerstown and six bullets in Laurel. He won both Michigan and Maryland, but for him, wounded and paralyzed, it was all over.

Then Humphrey proceeded to destroy McGovern’s chances by pointing out his quixotic stands on Israel, defense spending, welfare, labor law, unemployment compensation, taxation and even Vietnam. In three bruising debates, Humphrey obliterated any chances of McGovern to mount even a mild challenge to Nixon. The election was a blowout, with Nixon winning 49 states and nearly 62 percent of the popular vote.

McGovern rationalized his defeat by saying, “I want every one of you to remember that if we pushed the day of peace just one day closer, then every minute and every hour and every bone-crushing effort in this campaign was worth the entire effort.” I suspect he died on Oct. 21, 2012, still believing these self-delusional words.

At about the same time, the seeds of Watergate had been planted. A small unobtrusive dark cloud was forming somewhere in the atmosphere, and it would end up unraveling the entire Nixon presidency and legacy. The arc of fate is long and never-ending.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Pendulum Seems to Be Swinging Back to a Dangerous World

Many in the United States argued a sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1945 Yalta Conference conceded too much in return for assistance in the Pacific.

By Jim O’Neal

In the 21st century, the issue of nuclear threats primarily focuses on non-state actors, loosely defined as terrorist organizations. The prevailing theory is that too many loose nukes could result in a “suitcase bomb” detonated in New York, London or Paris. Nations would not risk the instant retaliation that would follow. This gradually evolved after WW2 and there was little doubt which nation would become America’s next adversary.

During the war, the United States and Soviet Union shared a mutual objective of defeating Germany and this blurred the stark differences in politics and culture. Among the most indelible images are photographs of American soldiers and their Russian counterparts meeting at the Elbe River, signaling the war’s triumphant end.

However, once the glow of victory ebbed (and it faded fast), Russian soldiers brutally raped their way through a defeated Germany, and communications between the two sides devolved into intense suspicion. For Americans, the situation seemed clear. The Soviets were basically an evil nation, intent on spreading their godless theology … especially in crippled Europe, Turkey and the oil-rich land of Iran.

To the leaders in Moscow, the Americans were the new imperialists, eager to deny Russia the spoils of war that had extracted a significant price from the Russian people. They also suspected we were intent on preventing them from building a buffer defense zone against another invasion of their western border. Just as America had balked at Versailles, we would now prevent them from acquiring the war treasure they deserved.

American negotiators pleaded for democratic principles to reorganize the ravaged nations of Europe. But the Russians were adamant about holding those lands where the Russian army stood, plus gaining ground adjacent. Many in the United States blamed the negotiations at the 1945 Yalta Conference, where a sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt had conceded too much in return for assistance in the Pacific. In the end, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin simply solidified Russian control throughout Eastern Europe, beginning a pattern of deportations, intimidation and corruption. This led to the “People’s Democracies” (fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union) in Poland, Hungary, Romania, East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

As others obtained nuclear capability and the Cold War intensified, the world somehow managed to fight wars in China, Korea, Vietnam and dozens of other places despite 60 years of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). The “Doctor Strangelove” scenario never came to pass as nations were always acutely sensitive to the assurance of immediate annihilation.

Today, acts of terrorism have become routine and, surprisingly, another Cold War is heating up via rebuilding nuclear stockpiles, cyber threats and rogue nations like North Korea and Iran openly talking of death and destruction. It seems like the worst-case scenario is in full bloom. Who would have predicted a more dangerous world than the one we lived through in the 50 years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Evil Empire?

Sigh.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding’s Funeral Train Transfixed the World

president-harding
President Harding was popular with Americans, but the Harding Scandals later tainted his legacy.

By Jim O’Neal

The news of President Warren G. Harding’s death astonished the American people. Telephone and telegraph lines stayed busy between San Francisco and Washington. A special railroad car, “The Superb,” was outfitted as a hearse. Twenty-four hours after the president died, the train left San Francisco, pulling the lighted car with its flag-draped coffin, honor guard and banks of flowers.

“The spectacle of the funeral train traversing the entire breadth of the United States,” observed The Washington Post, “is not to be forgotten.”

News of Harding’s death arrived at the White House by telephone. Irwin “Ike” Hoover, the White House Chief Usher, had been trying to keep a diary, but he never seemed to make a record of important things. “President dies” was all he recorded that day. In fact, his book was merely a series of blank pages for all the early days of August 1923. Hoover’s job was to run the White House, not record history. He quickly set to work hanging crepe over the mirrors of the East Room. Then the shades were drawn and the house was closed to the public.

Later, the book 42 Years in the White House chronicled Hoover’s service, which started in 1891 (when he installed the first electrical wiring in the White House) and continued through nine presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison and ending with Herbert Hoover. He died in 1933 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the White House for his funeral. Oh, the tales that probably didn’t get recorded.

Harding’s funeral train pulled into Union Station on Aug. 7. It had held the world transfixed during its five-day trip across the nation. An honor guard transported the coffin from the train with great ceremony and Harding’s body was placed in the East Room. The funeral was held in the Capitol with his Cabinet, Congress and a large group of invited dignitaries.

Florence Harding had a quiet dinner with Calvin Coolidge and his family, and would remain in the White House for five busy days. She had a fire built in the fireplace in the Treaty Room and then methodically started burning the presidential papers she determined should not survive. Then she had all the remaining papers packed into boxes and removed to a nearby friend’s house. Then she resumed the burning more slowly in small fires on the lawn.

President Harding’s secretary, George Christian, stood by helplessly during this process, until he found some papers undisturbed in the Oval Office and hid them in the pantry on the first floor. They remained there, apparently forgotten, until after Mrs. Harding’s death. Then they were given to the Library of Congress. No other papers of President Harding are known to have survived the purge of his records.

Later, the “Harding Scandals” would offer one possible reason for this unusual situation.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Truman’s Time in Office Was Tumultuous, but He Still Ranks Among Best

harry-s-truman-inscribed-photo-signed
Virtually every prediction indicated that Harry S. Truman would be defeated by Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election. A copy of the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” photograph, inscribed by Truman, sold for $10,157.50 at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Harry S. Truman moved back into the newly rebuilt White House in March 1952 and he had already decided not to seek reelection.

Since Truman had only served one full term as an elected president (having filled a partial term after Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office), he was eligible to run for president a second time. This was the same dilemma that had confronted two of his predecessors: Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, both of whom had decided not to run a second time. Truman was well aware of their personal deliberations; the first Roosevelt had lived to regret not running, while Coolidge had never looked back.

In 1951, after four years of debate, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment of the Constitution, which limited an elected president to two terms. This was a reaction to FDR’s long tenure, and it specifically exempted Truman. But, he had made up his mind.

He addressed the Democratic Party’s historic Jefferson-Jackson dinner at the D.C. National Guard Armory. “I shall not be a candidate for reelection. I have served my country long and I think efficiently and honestly. I shall not accept a re-nomination.” He added in an ironic tone not typical of him, “I do not think that it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House.”

Although he was a tough-skinned politician, he resented the negative public opinion that had risen around him. His time in office, eight years less about two months, had been tumultuous, filled with achievements that had not been easy. His call for liberal change had been rooted philosophically in the New Deal, but in the wake of World War I and increased prosperity, his call fell on deaf ears.

The American public was turning elsewhere, particularly after he vetoed an ardent Republican crusade to turn coastal tidelands mineral rights over to the states, and it was viewed as a lame-duck president lashing out. It was actually one of the few vetoes that stuck (12 of his vetoes were overridden by Congress) and it created an energy that would result in a Republican victory in the upcoming election.

At about the same time, the Treasury Department announced that the federal deficit would be double than the previous year and in the last months of his presidency, his popularity and spirits were low. He was ready to go home.

History has been kind to Truman. Every year, his standing on the Best Presidents list seems to improve. He was a small man in stature who assumed a big job at a crucial time and did his very best. Who could expect more?

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding Entered Office on a High Note … then Came the Scandals

warren-g-harding-and-james-m-cox-absolutely-stunning-matched-pair-of-large-1920-rarities
This matched pair of Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox 1920 campaign buttons sold for $6,875 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Republicans returned to power in the election of 1920 with the victory of Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Isolated even further in the confines of the White House, Woodrow Wilson and family waited out the year and the first two months of 1921. The outgoing president’s condition had stopped improving. He was feeble and mostly occupied with his books and papers, though he now lacked the mental acuity that was key to his greatness.

Late in his term, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his spirits rose. Remorse yielded to genuine gratification, an indulgence he rarely allowed himself even in the good times. However, Edith Wilson found little diversion from this almost oppressive situation. The world was slowly passing the Wilsons by without a second glance.

The 1920 campaign had been dull and lackluster, with Harding remaining in Ohio on his front porch, greeting thousands of well-wishers and speaking to them informally. The Democrats had tried to make the League of Nations a campaign issue, but Harding’s position was too obscure since he was really only interested in preserving the Senate’s constitutional rights regarding foreign treaties. When voters got to the polls, politicians discovered the campaigns had not mattered. The people were so tired of government restrictions and hardships imposed by the war that they sought a complete change in administrations and a return to “America First.”

Harding and running mate Calvin Coolidge drubbed James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the popular vote and electoral college (404 to 127).

Between the election and inauguration, Harding chose his cabinet, carefully balancing the membership with close political friends and leaders in the Republican Party. It was a blue-chip group that included Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of New York, Supreme Court Justice and presidential candidate in 1916) as Secretary of State; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover; and millionaire Pittsburg banker Andrew Mellon as Secretary of Treasury. But there were also a few friends, like Albert Fall (Interior) and Harry Daugherty (Attorney General), who would become infamous for corruption.

Friends of Harding and Daugherty flocked from Ohio to Washington for jobs. Headquarters for the “Ohio Gang” was the “Little Green House” on K Street, where government favors and appointments were bought and sold. Evidence of Harding’s knowledge is sketchy; his friends just assumed he would agree in order to please them. But late in 1922, Harding learned of irregularities at the Veterans’ Bureau, where huge amounts of surplus materials were sold far below market value and in turn new supplies were purchased far above fair value, all without competitive bidding.

The head of the agency, Charles R. Forbes – one of Harding’s poker buddies – was allowed to resign, but the attorney for the Bureau committed suicide. This was soon followed by the death of another close Harding friend, Jess Smith, who shared an apartment with Daugherty and was a member of the “Ohio Gang.” Sensing trouble, Harding had asked him to leave Washington, however Smith shot himself to death. But the biggest surprise surfaced after Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco in August 1923.

Secretary of Interior Fall had allowed two large federal oil fields in Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., to be opened to private oil companies. He was convicted of bribery ($400,000) and sent to prison. Attorney General Daugherty was brought to trial in 1924 for conspiracy in much of this, but refused to testify to avoid “incriminating the dead president” and it hung the jury.

How much Harding actually knew about the corruption among his friends will never be known. After his death, Mrs. Harding burned all his papers and correspondence, diligently recovering and destroying even personal letters in the possession of other people. Since she had also refused to have Harding’s corpse autopsied in San Francisco, there have always been rumors he was actually poisoned.

Ah, Washington, D.C. – such a small city, but with so many untold mysteries.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].