Tempest in A Teapot Dome: The Harding Presidential Sites (Marion, OH)

Once one of the most populous states in the United States, Ohio has provided this country with one of the highest numbers of this nation’s presidents, clocking in with either seven or eight depending on how you slice it (William Henry Harrison, the man with the shortest presidency, was born in Virginia but made most of his political hay while living in Indiana and Ohio.)

Despite the numbers, the impact of Ohio presidents and their quality of their terms has been decidedly mixed. The only two-termer, Ulysses S. Grant, was considered by most experts far more effective as a battlefield general than head of state. Two (James Garfield and William McKinley) were assassinated for their trouble. William Howard Taft suffered in comparison to the president he followed, the enigmatic Theodore Roosevelt, while Rutherford B. Hayes was hampered by a sketchy election win and struggled to solve lingering divisions from the Civil War.

Meanwhile, the Harrisons (William Henry and his grandson Benjamin) each had their downfalls, the former from pneumonia after less than one month in office, and the latter from an election that saw him hampered by his election win (winning the electoral but losing the popular vote to his opponent, Grover Cleveland.) Harrison’s economic policies related to silver and railroads enacted during his term were seen as too aligned with elite interests (some say they largely led to the Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression), and helped Grover Cleveland to regain the Presidency four years later.

The seventh (or eighth, if you prefer) president Ohio can boast of proved to be a hybrid of all of the above. Marion, Ohio’s Warren G. Harding also never finished out his term, dying in San Francisco from long-suspected cardiac issues during an extended train trip to visit his constituents across the country. He also had his own unique set of issues to handle in both personal and political life, as we found out during a recent visit to the Harding Presidential Home and Library.

ChatGPT – will it go the way of Skynet?

The tempest referred to in the title is not so much related to Harding himself, but rather to the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) chat platforms like ChatGPT and similar. Numerous articles and some pundits in general have warned about the potential harm in this technology (this Economic Times article noted Microsoft’s need to tame their browser-related AI chat bot after some eye-opening exchanges where the platform expressed a love of Adolf Hitler and issuing personal threats.) For anyone into science fiction movies, the date August 29, 1997 should ring a bell – that’s when Skynet, the source that would eventually create human-eliminating terminator machines, became self-aware.

Could something like ChatGPT become self-aware? I’ve heard a couple of folks I know talk about that possibility, but as of now, that answer is in “to be determined” status (a status I frankly hope stays that way.) For this post, I thought I’d actually check out what all the fuss by asking ChatGPT by asking the platform what a visit to the Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites would be like. To be honest, I thought this would be a touch too obscure a topic for ChatGPT to handle, but the platform actually came through with a response:

“A trip to the Warren Harding Presidential Museum and Site in Marion, Ohio is a fascinating and educational experience for anyone interested in American history and the life and legacy of President Warren G. Harding.

Located in the President’s hometown of Marion, the museum is housed in the former residence of Harding and his wife, Florence. Visitors can tour the beautifully restored home, which has been restored to its appearance during the Hardings’ time and includes many of the couple’s original furnishings and personal belongings.

In addition to the home, the museum also includes a research library and archives, where visitors can learn more about Harding’s life and presidency. There is also a variety of exhibits that highlight key moments and events from Harding’s life and presidency, including his presidential campaign, his inauguration, and his foreign policy initiatives.

One of the highlights of a visit to the museum is a tour of the Presidential Park, which includes a memorial to President Harding and a statue of him. The park is a peaceful and tranquil space, and visitors can take a stroll and enjoy the scenic views.

Overall, a trip to the Warren Harding Presidential Museum and Site is a unique opportunity to learn more about one of America’s most fascinating presidents and to gain a deeper appreciation for his contributions to American history and politics. Whether you are a history buff, a student of American politics, or simply someone who wants to learn more about this important figure, this museum is a must-visit destination.”

Hmm, I suppose that’s not bad a bad start – I could see a visitors bureau employee using this as a starting point for a pamphlet or similar to promote the Harding Site to visitors, or even a school student adopting this as a template to make true on a class assignment.

Still, most readers would feel there’s something terribly empty with the response, and maybe this is best exampled by this blogpost itself. Considering Harding’s presidency without reference to other Ohio presidents and not containing any specific details about Harding’s life is a severe deficiency. As we learned during our visit, Harding established the hometown newspaper, the Marion Star, and his run for the presidency saw thousands of people come to Marion by train to walk a fairly substantial distance just to hear him speak during his very successful “Front Porch Campaign.”

Overall, the exhibits in the Library portion of the site give visitors a generally positive view of a man whose presidency isn’t much remembered by many Americans and has been regarded by the few people I’ve read in the know residing on the bottom of the very subjective “Best- and Worst-Presidencies in History” list. The events leading up to his marriage with his wife Florence were fairly scandalous for their time; to their credit, neither seemed to pay it much mind, and Florence herself acquitted herself quite well during and after her husband’s death.

A good portion of the exhibit is dedicated to Harding’s train trip in 1923, with numerous memorabilia in house related to gifts given to the President at various stops on his tour. Meanwhile, the negative aspects of Harding’s term, most notably the Teapot Dome Scandal (the most commonly associated event related to Harding’s term outside of his death in office,) are only touched on briefly in the main exhibits.

The tour of the Harding House (photographs are not allowed inside at this time) lends a visitor with the impression that the family was on the fairly modest side of things when it came to upbringing – this isn’t anything close to the lavish settings we’ve seen in prior historic homes that we’ve visited. The grounds also sport a couple points of interest with the shed converted into a press room during Harding’s campaign (a small exhibit on Ohio’s women pioneers was in house during our visit) as well as the horseshoe pit where Harding like to sling the iron with his colleagues.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, hyperbole has always come with the territory when running a political campaign, with varying doses of patriotism and nationalism. Despite what some modern-day pundits have claimed is a modern day movement, the whole “America First” notion is a well-worn and oft used one that was used by Harding and his associates.

Also missing from the ChatGPT summary above is some of the other finer details of the Harding Presidential Sites: despite there being a dozen-plus men who have held this nation’s leader spot since Harding’s death in 1923, the Library and Presidential Site is actually the newest such US President-related venture. The Harding House and surroundings were refurbished while the Library was being built, with all slated to open to the public in (you guessed it) 2020, the 100th year anniversary of Harding’s election. Of course, the COVID-19 Pandemic put a kibosh on that plan, but history buffs and presidency enthusiasts can now visit the place where Harding called home now without any restrictions outside of operating hours.

The most spectacular Harding Presidential Site isn’t on the main property but rather roughly a mile and a quarter south at the Harding Memorial and Tomb. This Neo-Classically-styled, temple-like marble structure within which the Hardings are interred is by far the most visually striking of the sites available. Interestingly, the pomp and elegance that comes through what was then $800K ($12.5M in today’s money) construct contrasted quite a bit from Harding’s own wishes to be “buried in a simple grave under a tree and under the stars.” Still, the Memorial offers a serene setting to ponder life, even if you have to navigate over icy marble steps and surfaces as we did on the day or our visit.

Perhaps the most “ordinary Joe” type aspect to Marion, Ohio’s favorite son was his insane love of waffles. Harding had so much of a love for this breakfast staple that it is a prime point of emphasis made to house tour-goers. Being a fan of food and food exploration in general, I ended up grabbing an apron with emblazoned with the 29th President’s most famous quote about his most beloved meal. I suppose if you’re such a avid lover of waffles, you can’t be that bad a person in real life, right?

Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum | Address: 380 Mt Vernon Ave, Marion, OH 43302 | Website: https://hardingpresidentialsites.org/ | FB: https://www.facebook.com/HardingPresidentialSites/

Warren G. Harding Memorial & Tomb | Address: 966-870 Delaware Ave, Marion, OH 43302

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