Warren G. Harding: The Reluctant President

By Cynthia Citron

If David Hunt Stafford were running for president, you might want to vote for him. But not for the man he portrays in “Fifteen Men in a Smoke-Filled Room”: Warren G. Harding.

According to playwright Colin Speer Crowley, Harding apparently didn’t want to run at all, “I’m strolling for office, not running,” he said. But after a deadlock among the candidates and four days of voting he was chosen on the tenth ballot to be the Republican candidate and was then elected to become the 29th president of the United States.

Initially popular at first, he and his administration, rife with corruption and scandals, served to earn Harding the historical ranking as “one of the worst presidents” — at least until the election of our current head of state.

Paramount among the scandals was Teapot Dome, in which the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was charged with leasing Navy petroleum reserves in Wyoming to private oil companies and was convicted of accepting bribes from them. Fall then became the first member of Harding’s Cabinet to go to jail.

Another “scandal” was Harding’s ongoing adulterous affair with a young woman named Nan Britton (Sarah Walker) which was considered unacceptable in the 1920s. Britton confessed to having had a crush on Harding since she first saw his face on a campaign poster, but she was cautious about the relationship because she didn’t want to interfere with his role as president or his marriage to a harridan named Florence Kling Harding (Roslyn Cohn). “I don’t want to ruin your destiny,” Britton said. Nevertheless, she bore him a daughter, a girl named Elizabeth Anne.

Harding apparently sincerely loved his mistress, and David Hunt Stafford played the role with all the yearning and passion that an older man might feel for a lively younger woman. He desired nothing more than to give up the presidency and spend the remainder of his life with her. Which would seem reasonable, considering that Florence, his wife, was a sharp-tongued woman who treated him with contempt and perpetually harangued him.

The other major influence upon him (in addition to his wife) was Harry Daugherty (John Combs), his campaign manager, who also harangued him. Daugherty was adamant in insisting that Harding run for a second term, perhaps because Harding had appointed him Attorney General in his Cabinet.

Florence, however, believed in astrology and often consulted a clairvoyant who told her that her husband was “inclined to melancholy” and would die before he finished his first term. Which caused Florence, who wanted her husband to “pull out” of the presidency, to confront Daugherty at the top her lungs and admit that “People don’t like me” and “Warren is all I have.” “Desolation is my home town,” she concluded.

All this activity takes place in The Florentine Room of Chicago’s posh Congress Hotel, in an opulent maroon and velvet set designed by Jeff G. Rack. The room is serviced by a busybody waiter (Kevin Dulude) and the activity is periodically interrupted by a radio broadcaster (Roger K. Weiss) situated behind a screen onstage who reports “another day, another scandal! It seems like nothing can prevent further improprieties from staining President Harding and his administration… Congressmen from both parties can only wonder if there will be an end to the wide-spread corruption sweeping the nation’s capital.”

And in the end, Florence’s clairvoyant was right! Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, in the middle of his first term as president. He was 58 years old.

This gripping and timely political tale was boldly directed by the multi-award-winning Jules Aaron and was seen until mid-December at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.

Cynthia Citron has lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica as a journalist, award-winning magazine editor, public relations director, and screenwriter. She can be reached at ccitron66@gmail.com

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