You can hate a president or love him; root for him or campaign against him. But no matter your political affiliation or legislative bias, there's one thing virtually every president has in common that no one can change — premature graying. Call it an affliction, but really it's the stress of the job. It comes with the territory.
Recent presidents have all developed graying: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, both Bushes and now Barack Obama. Bill Clinton was the poster child for turning gray, while Ronald Reagan showed the least change (though Ron may have touched up his mane from time to time). Either way, the stress of the job takes its toll.
With this consequence of the position, you'd think anyone would think twice before running for the office or, more wisely, avoid it altogether. More than a few who rose to the office lamented doing so afterward, including John Adams who said, "No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." Or James Garfield who questioned, "My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?"
Dial the clock back to 1920, and it might have appeared an entirely different position than it is today. World War I was over, the economy was booming, and the stock market was doing just fine. Gold was king and carried as coins in people's pockets. Millionaires were being made at a record rate, and a young senator named Warren Harding was enjoying life. Previously the editor of a small-town paper in Marion, Ohio, Harding liked his position in the Senate. There, the workload was so light he considered it more an exclusive club with privileges. That would soon change.
It wasn't so much Harding's idea to run for president as it was his wife Florence's. She was determined for Harding to become chief executive. Normally, this wouldn't have mattered much, but 1920 was the first year women could vote. Florence pulled out all the stops and, with the help of women, generated 60 percent of the popular vote for her husband. Harding accepted the mantle, not entirely sure what he was in for.
The pressures of the office quickly became apparent and started to take a toll. During his newspaper days, he had once suffered a nervous breakdown. Happily, this didn't recur during his presidency, but he frequently whined about the plague of making decisions to his secretary and mistress.
This was another little secret. Harding — renowned for being extremely handsome — enjoyed the company of other women, including attractive Nan Britton, who was 30 years his junior. She was regularly snuck into the West Wing by the Secret Service for trysts. There were no hidden cameras or gossip columns back then, but his affair could have offered plenty had there been. Harding and Britton made love in the White House, including in select closets, while his wife was nearby. Britton eventually bore Harding's illegitimate child, Elizabeth Ann.
Harding did his best to avoid the headaches of office by immersing himself in games of golf and poker. He wasn't great at either. In fact, he once lost an entire service of White House china in a failed poker hand.
Political insiders knew of his incompetence and avoidance of responsibility but let Congress do the heavy lifting. But even with its members doing the work, the stress of the job got the better of Harding. He soon not only acquired a head of gray and white hair but died of a heart attack in 1923, barely two years into his term. Because his lackluster performance was under the radar, and the public wasn't aware of his shortcomings (or affairs!), he was posthumously honored with postage stamps and medals.
Now, some 90 years later, he joins other past presidents on the latest coin in the Presidential Golden Dollar series. The coin's frontal portrait gives Harding the appearance of a leader, though his gray hair isn't apparent. As the 25th coin in the series, it does an admirable job of making him look statesmanlike.
The Presidential Golden Dollar coins are no longer being released for general circulation, but collectors can purchase them in rolls or bags directly from the U.S. Mint. For more information, log on to www.USMint.gov or phone toll free: 800-USA-MINT.
Editor's Note: A JPEG visual of the new Warren Harding Golden Dollar coin has been sent with this column.
To find out more about Peter Rexford and features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.