THOLOS OF ATHENA

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

IT USED TO BE LONELY AT THE TOP

1923: From The Timely Death of President Harding
by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Independently Charles R. Forbes was carrying on a highly profitable line of graft. He was another personal appointment, Harding having met him while on a Senatorial junket and been charmed with his bonhomie. Chiefly because he wanted his jovial playmate at hand, the President offered him several appointments, which he declined. There was nothing in them but the salary. Salaries did not interest the ambitious applicant; he was out for bigger money. He tried for the Shipping Board and settled for the Veterans Bureau. Nearly half a billion dollars a year was alloted to this agency. He got to work upon it. He chose as counsel for the Bureau Charles F. Cramer, a California lawyer.

[...]

The first intimation of a break in the program came by letter from Europe. Colonel Charles R. Forbes, travelling for his health, resigned. It was an ominous note. Harding failed to recognize its import. He urged his old crony to reconsider; but Forbes knew now that he could never stand up to the threatened Senatorial investigation.

Resignations may be interpreted one way or the other. A bullet is definitive. At dead of night in the house which he had bought from the President, Forbes' right-hand man, Cramer, shot himself. A Department of Justice agent was early on the spot. He hurried to the White House and got Harding out of bed.

"Mr. President: I have a letter for you."

"Who's it from?"

Charles F. Cramer. Mr. Cramer is dead."

"Yes, I know." (How he knew is a matter for surmise. Cramer was alone in the house when he killed himself. Had he perhaps called up the President and given notice of his intention?)

"Here is the letter, sir. It was found in his room."

"Take it away. I don't want it."

The message was destroyed, unread, by Harry Daugherty, to whom the F.B.I. man delivered it.

Shortly after the tragedy Forbes returned from Europe. A chance visitor, misdirected in the White House, was horrified at breaking in upon a scene of violence. The President of the United States had a man by the throat, shaking him and gasping out:

"You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!"

The victim was Charley Forbes.

It was the President's first positive disillusionment. Always a self-persuasive optimist, Harding might have been able to convince himself that Forbes' disloyalty was a sporadic instance, not symptomatic of a general condition of rottenness. But now disturbing reports that struck nearer to home reached his ears, matters about which informed circles had been gossiping for months. Like the proverbial injured husband, the President of the United States is always the last to hear news affecting the honor of his house. Too many people are interested in keeping information from him.

Harding sent for Jess Smith

Poor Jess was in eclipse. He had been evicted from his sanctum of power in the Department of Justice and banished to his native Ohio by Harry Daugherty, presumably because his loose-tongued bragging of easy money had become dangerous. Wretched in exile, he crept back to Washington. Possibly the first inkling of his error was when he was summoned to the White House.

The President had chosen his subject shrewdly, Under inquisition the pulpy grafter broke down and, in his slobbering, sputtery speech, told Harding what Washington's political underworld had successfully concealed from him for nearly two years. There is reason to believe that his revelations did not include his boss, Harry Daugherty, who was spending that very night under the White House roof.

"Go home," the President bade his visitor. "Tomorrow you will be arrested."

Jess returned to the hotel apartment that he shared with Daugherty and blew his brains out. Either before or, more probably, after the act, all his papers were conveniently burned."
(The Aspirin Age, pp 92-7)

"Like the proverbial injured husband, the President of the United States is always the last to hear news affecting the honor of his house. Too many people are interested in keeping information from him." (my emphasis)

In this respect, at least, Harding seems innocent compared to today's Top Gun. It used to be lonely at the top, before torture was patented in the Justice Department. This was before the White House became an octopus of crime. This was before the crime against peace, the highest crime forbidden in the United Nations Charter, became no obstacle to an American president. Harding's were heady days when shame, disgrace, and humiliation were potent shadows that could cause a person possessed of some conscience to collapse, physically and mentally. Poor Harding suffered a nervous breakdown and coronary thrombosis that sent a blood clot to his brain when he discovered that his poker playing buddies, whom he appointed to government office, were all crooks.

Of Harding, Samuel Hopkins Adams writes:
Maneuvered by the politicians, the American people selected to represent them one whom they considered an average man. But the job they assigned him is not an average job. When he proved incapable of meeting its requirements, they blamed him and not themselves.

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