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In the Fullness of Time Excerpts
Novemebr 25, 1963
A Visit to the Tomb
I RETURNED to President Harding's tomb today, my first visit there since three or four weeks ago when I went out to assure myself that all evidence of some recent desecrations had been cleaned away, and that all was respectable once again.
Today I went for an altogether different reason. It is a crisp and beautiful autumn day, a day utterly belying the sorrow that lies across the land. I attended church yesterday, but other than that, I have scarcely stirred from the television set since Friday, an hour or so after lunch, when Mrs. Christian's daughter telephoned from Columbus to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
I am not ashamed to say that over these past four days I have shed my share of private tears, most especially when little John-John saluted his father's coffin as it emerged from St. Matthew's, and to think that today is the poor little fellow's third birthday. Now on every birthday he will hear, somewhere in his thoughts, the cadence of muffled drums.
I sat here late this morning transfixed and, as I watched the gun carriage drawn by the seven white steeds bearing the flag-draped coffin on its slow and stately journey towards Arlington, something stirred within me, a far-off resonance from the sound of those clattering hooves, a distant reflection from that same gleaming gun carriage, which forty years and four months ago bore the coffin of my friend and neighbor, President Warren G. Harding. Without forethought I found myself rising from my chair, adjusting my black tie and coat in the mirror, and drawing on my overcoat and hat. I paused briefly by the panel of windows overlooking the backyard and the Old Forest filled with sunlight, now that the buckeye, maple, and sycamore trees, and most of the ancient oaks, have shed their leaves. For a moment I thought again of that long ago summer afternoon when the President and First Lady were present in this very room, having graciously called at Tioga to visit and thank my father, who at that time was slowly dying in the bed in the corner. Then without turning off the television (for it seemed disrespectful to do so), I proceeded down the back stairs, out across the yard to the carriage house, and to my car. And so I made my own slow and stately way around the bend of Mt. Vernon Avenue and along the Boulevard, towards the Harding Memorial.
It was strange beyond words, but not once on the winding, mile-long drive to the tomb did I see a single other automobile, not even at the usually busy four corners. Nor for that matter did I see a single human being anywhere, not even some restless child at play in a yard with his dog. Everyone, the entire world it seemed, was accompanying our young President on his celestial journey. Indeed, I felt more than one pang of guilt for having moved from the television set, but I knew I would not be long at the President's tomb.
I hope you will forgive an old man's pride when I say that I consider the Harding Memorial to be the greatest achievement of my life, and it goes without saying that it will be my most lasting. Indeed, no matter what opinions you may hold of President Harding, I think one fact is utterly inarguable – that his tomb is quite simply one of the finest monuments built since antiquity; in the modern world, it is rivaled only by the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. This late morning when I pulled into the little parking area, I sat for a moment simply gazing at the monument in the distance, glowing in the tall trees like a vision from the classical world. Then, with hat in hand I walked through the clear, cold sunlight and made my way up the long promenade.
It pleases me no end to think that strangers coming upon the Harding Memorial must find it a most astonishing sight. If by some rare chance you are a student of heroic architecture, or classical structures in America, then no doubt you are already quite familiar with the tomb. It is a vast and soaring marble edifice of Hellenic style and Promethean size and splendor. It is circular, what the Greeks called a "tholos," with broad flights of white marble stairs ascending to a continuous colonnade of massive columns encircling an inner cella, or chamber, which is open to the sun and winds. A willow tree grows within the cloister and a hanging garden lines the entablature. At the center of the cella rest two enormous cenotaphic sarcophagi of black granite, surrounded by a thick bed of myrtle, and far beneath these markers, deep within the hermetically sealed concrete vault, lay the remains of President and Mrs. Harding. In spite of its superhuman air, the monument is as peaceful as a grotto in the woods. In all, the Memorial is everything I intended it to be when I first proposed its creation, nearly four decades ago. I am confident that the structure will endure for five thousand years. Down through the ages the Memorial will remind people of President Harding, and the character of his little hometown, which built it.
Of course today as I stood there, I was thinking not of the monument's beauty, or for that matter of my own pride. Instead, the sadness and unreality of the day seemed to affect me in unaccountable ways. The assassination of President Kennedy has made me feel once again as if I am passing through history and that history is passing through me. I stood before the cella for nearly twenty minutes before I was aware that even a single moment had passed. My mind ranged back through the years, as it so often does these days, conjuring people and times I once knew. I thought again of how, against all odds, Mr. Harding became President, of how, when he was young (and not so young), people called him, "Nigger Warren." I thought of our long campaign to make him President, and of the night of his sudden death in San Francisco. On this dreadful day I thought of something that I generally make a point of not thinking about at all — the absurd and persistent rumor that the President was assassinated, albeit obviously not with a high caliber bullet through the skull, but with a subtle poison ostensibly ministered by his devoted wife, with the supposed aid of an accomplice. Regrettably, when you deal with President Harding's legacy, you deal with a disproportionate amount of idle gossip and rumor. In fact, it was the same situation during his lifetime, so you can appreciate the challenge this created for us. Regarding the assassination rumor, so far as I'm concerned, it has about the same ring as all the talk nowadays of flying saucers and Martians landing in cornfields. Interesting, but where's the proof? In fact, where's the smallest shred of circumstantial evidence? By my lights, reasoned arguments even from the likes of biographers such as Samuel Hopkins Adams and William Allen White, calling the conjectured assassination "plausible," constitute little more than common gossip notched down to the level of academia.
Some of the President's biographers are just plain scoundrels, more or less. For instance, in the spring of 1947 a seemingly charming young historian, a former airman, arrived in Marion from an Ivy League college in the East. This young man – who called himself Matthias Mende – claimed to be the grandson of a long-dead ambassador to France. He had a picture of himself in his airman's uniform taken with Evelyn Walsh McLean at one of the parties she used to throw for servicemen at her estate in Virginia. Evelyn and her husband Jim – each the heir to a substantial fortune – were the Hardings' closest Washington friends. Jim's hobby was newspapers; he owned – among others in his collection – the Washington Post, and Evelyn's hobby was jewels; she owned – among others – the Hope Diamond. Anyway, as for the young historian, neither a snapshot with Evelyn McLean nor a supposed connection to a long dead ambassador would ever have given him entrée into Tioga's hermetic little world, but what interested my sister Adeline and me was this fellow's "forthright" admission that he was hoping to make a name for himself by reevaluating Mr. Harding's presidency, via a book analyzing the many wise and important undertakings he carried out in office. To this day I believe that Mr. Mende was altogether sincere in this regard. And I might add that such an approach to the Harding legacy would have been novel indeed, because nearly everyone outside of Marion, especially the historians, has conveniently forgotten the vast good and many effective things that the President did while in office. We allowed this young man into our confidence – in fact, into our lives – but soon his true colors began to show. Not only was he a subscriber to the poison theory, he also believed that people were still alive – and living right here in Marion – who supposedly participated in the "assassination."
He never wrote that promised history and, indeed, he himself became woven into the fabric of Harding rumors and legends. One June day he lit out for a visit to Lake Erie and we never saw him again. Matt's "disappearance" brought pain to Adeline and me. And, I might add, it led to the end of a lifelong friendship that we shared with one of our contemporaries, my classmate, Dana Yost.
That young interloper from 1947 was one of the reasons why I refused to speak with yet another of the President's would-be biographers, who just last month was snooping around Marion and leaning on my doorbell.
Obviously, I did not intend to dwell on such irksome thoughts this day, of all days, while standing before the cella in my mourning clothes. As I stood there, a deepening chill stirred me from my thoughts, and I realized that gray wintry clouds were fast approaching from the northwest and that the sun had gone in. I felt a sudden loneliness in that beautiful, desolate place, for I seemed to be the only person alive in the entire world. I adjusted the collar of my overcoat; a glance at my watch indicated that I had now been gone from Tioga for more than half an hour. From my imperfect memories of Washington, I estimated that the President's coffin would soon be crossing the Potomac and ascending the broad rise to Arlington – if it hadn't already. Thus with a little bow to President and Mrs. Harding's graves, I took my leave of them and hastened home for the Burial.
November 25, 1963
The President visits Tioga
DARKNESS IS FALLING early and quickly, as it does this time of year, and these four heartbreaking days are at last coming to a close. I kept vigil watching Channel 10 until Walter Cronkite, looking stricken and fatigued, finally signed off just a short while ago with, "And that's the way it is, at the end of a very long Monday, November 25, 1963. Good evening." I do not know if I can ever bear the return of regular programming, so I got up, quickly turned the set off, unplugged it, and settled into my father's green leather chair. I have now sat here for several minutes watching the rather ghostly-looking trees of the Old Forest fade into darkness, while my own reflection slowly appears, equally rather ghostly, upon the darkening windowpane.
Along with the library, this cozy and modest room is one of my favorites in the entire house. This was also my father's preferred room; in fact, although this room was meant more as a sitting room, with its panels of windows on three sides and its pleasant views of the Old Forest, he came to use this as his bedroom and, indeed, he died in the same bed in which I sleep. Like the rest of Tioga, the room has changed little through the years. The same windows with their rippled glass, which lend the room a good bit of charm and "character," look out over the old carriage house and over many of the same trees that were alive when my father was in his prime, and the very same lamps and furniture that he knew remain in their places. The portrait of my mother, hand-painted in Cincinnati when she was about sixteen, stands on the night table, exactly where it was on that delightful summer afternoon when President and Mrs. Harding came to pay respects to my dying father.
That was on the 3rd of July, 1922.
I was not living at Tioga at that time. Lucy and I had our own home. Back then, Adeline lived here with Papa, along with Nurse Boyle, who came to us through Surgeon-General Sawyer, having worked for him at his sanitarium on the west end of town. At that time Miss Evelyn Evans, the housekeeper, was still living here. I am happy to report that the former Miss Evans remains housekeeper to this very day, though she became Mrs. Christian about forty years ago, and she remained so efficient through the years that she managed to care for Tioga while raising a family of her own. Anyway, as you can imagine, it was no secret that the President of the United States had come home to Marion for a visit. His motorcade had arrived the evening before from Washington, and on that pleasant summer day all of Marion was draped in flags and patriotic bunting. I was in my office that morning when Adeline telephoned to say that George Christian, the White House Chief of Staff (and a former quarry clerk for my family's company), had just called from his mother's house to ask if it would be convenient for the President and First Lady to pay a little visit to Colonel Hamilton, at around two o'clock, if he was feeling up to it. Well, Dad was feeling as "up to it" as he would ever again.
I am afraid that it was a difficult visit simply because of my father's condition. A stroke had felled him in his sleep five months before, during a snowstorm, and he never rose from his bed again. A couple of other strokes followed, each one cleaving away at his life and functions (and I might add, at his dignity) without spiriting him away, and seemingly without impairing his mind. Throughout that spring and well into the summer he just lay in that bed like a man who had turned into a living corpse. His eyes were as alive as ever, following us with the same intelligence and comprehension as we spoke, just as if he had been sitting at his big desk in the library with his maps and books and balance sheets spread before him.
The Hardings had visited Tioga scores of times during the years, but I suppose it goes without saying that none of those visits was quite like the last, when they arrived as President and First Lady. Ever since the Inauguration, Mrs. Harding had had a genuine – and not unreasonable – fear that her husband would be assassinated, just as his mentor and fellow Ohioan, President William McKinley, had been shot and killed decades before. Thus to placate the First Lady's fears, President Harding's security detail was even more extensive than it otherwise might have been.
I remember Adeline and I were in this very room with Dad and the sun was shimmering in the treetops. I had just helped Nurse Boyle put a new bed-shirt on him when we heard Spats running downstairs causing quite a stir, and then he was at the back screen door barking in his most businesslike tone, the one he generally reserved for tramps or cats on the prowl. I could hear Miss Evans trying to reason with him, and then she called out a greeting, which was answered by a man in the yard. Adeline and I immediately went to the panel of windows to see who on earth was out there, and we saw a local policeman walking along where the yard merges with the Old Forest, and another officer was a little ways into the Forest itself, peering among the trees. I suppose they were searching for any gun-toting Bolsheviks who might have somehow divined that the President was on his way to my family’s house. (Earlier that summer the Justice Department uncovered a Bolshevik plot to kill the President by blowing up the White House yacht, the Potomac. This was said to be part of their master plan to destabilize the world and bring about "global revolution." Obviously, the conspiracy itself was heinous enough, but it seemed all the more treacherous and perfidious coming as it did after Mr. Harding had sent hundreds of millions of tons of food to the Soviet Union to alleviate the famine then laying waste to their vast nation.)
When Adeline and I went down to await the Hardings on the broad front porch, other policemen were milling about Tioga’s park-like grounds, and some were lurking amid the trees across Mt. Vernon Avenue. Two agents wearing blue business suits, looking for all the world like bank managers, waited by the graveled carriage path, and in my mind's eye I can still see another rolling a cigarette, leaning against the rump of the bronze stag that has looked out across the front yard for the past sixty some years. He glanced at us and nodded, and for a moment his eyes settled on Adeline. I remember as we stood waiting on the porch, she said a little something that I forgot for a long time, but which then came back to me with a bit of irony, after a couple of years had passed. In a low voice that no one else in proximity could have possibly heard, she said, "Tristan, do you think all these guards can possibly keep Flossie from doing Warren in? – I mean if and when she ever finally gets fed up with his ways."
I smiled. Mr. Harding's private life was, for various reasons, something of a joke between us – as I am sure it was with many other folks in Marion. I glanced at her and we exchanged the sort of conspiratorial little smile we had been exchanging all our lives, over this or that. "Well," I said, "I suppose they'd feel duty-bound to try, wouldn't they? Though they'd best put their own houses in order before they get in Flossie’s way."
I hasten to add that Adeline and I both meant what we said strictly as a joke and nothing more.
I also recall very clearly that, as we waited, I was thinking about the job President Harding offered me in a letter that I had received the week before – hand-delivered by Wells-Fargo. Dan Crissinger, former president of the Marion County Bank, was now Director of the Federal Reserve. Some sort of position was available at the Reserve and the President wanted me to come out and fill it. Frankly, I was thinking about how to politely turn him down. It would be the second time I had turned a job down with the Administration. Immediately after the elections, the President-elect had asked me to become Superintendent of the National Capital Parks East, but I was not interested in that job either, or in any other job in Washington. I rejected the position in part because we had already achieved our goal – the elevation of Senator Warren G. Harding to the Presidency of the United States. I simply was not interested in going to Washington. Besides, I had some very good reasons to stay here in Marion, and those same reasons were still valid. I needed to tend to my own business, which is to say, to Colonel Hamilton & Son. The economy was brisk in the early '20s, and a building boom was well underway. The local economy was especially strong in 1922, thanks in part to some very lucrative government contracts that had found their way to Marion's industries. And there was another very real issue at stake. So very many of Marion's talented residents – known in certain circles as the "Ohio Gang" – had gone to Washington to help run the country, that it was a wonder that any of our banks, factories, businesses, or even our schools and hospital had anyone left at the helms. Or for that matter, at the oars. In fact, Argus Finch, my former right hand man at Colonel Hamilton & Son, was now the Administrator of Public Buildings, and even "Pop" Baldwin, custodian for twenty-some years at the Courthouse, was now overseeing the small army of men who were sweeping the marble floors and changing the light bulbs at the Capitol. Frankly, it annoyed me a little that the President seemed to have forgotten my desire to tend to my own business here in Marion and was persisting in his attempt to twist my arm.
In some ways, I think he was actually trying to make amends with me, man-to-man, for certain personal infractions from about eight years before – back when I still had plenty of pink in my cheeks. I want to stress here and now that I was utterly devoted to President Harding, just as I had been utterly devoted to Senator Harding, and to Candidate Harding. But I had gotten it into my head that it was Warren Harding, the man, who was now trying to make amends with me via the person and prestige of the President. Man-to-man, I would not give Warren Harding the time of day, much less the personal satisfaction of atonement. And besides, President Harding certainly did not need me in Washington; if he had, I would have answered his call. Nevertheless, I hated the thought of having to turn him down anew, so in that way I was dreading the visit.
A few minutes after Adeline and I stepped onto the porch, we heard the low rumble of approaching automobiles and, rounding the distant curve of Mt. Vernon Avenue, the motorcade swung into view, proceeding through the tunnel of overhanging trees. A Marion police car led the pack, two long black sedans followed, and after them came the President's enormous, black Pierce-Arrow limousine, an agent riding on each running board beside the rear compartment; more sedans followed, preceding another local police car. I recall as well that a flotilla of jalopies trailed the motorcade at a respectful distance, crammed with young people, and far behind these a flock of boys on bicycles peddled for dear life trying to catch up, and far in the distance I could see other children and young people running in their wake. It was quite an impressive sight, both for the motorcade itself and for the tide of humanity being swept along in its wake. The lead police car and sedans pulled up along the curb of the avenue in front of Tioga, like sentries, and agents and policemen immediately disembarked and spread themselves over the periphery of the grounds. The other cars of the motorcade parked along the avenue as well.
Only the President's limousine swung onto the carriage path.
The Pierce-Arrow, with gold-tasseled flags fluttering and brass fixtures gleaming sunlight, had the presence of a gigantic black yacht floating gracefully up the long drive. It rode so high that not even Adeline, who was an inch or so taller than me, had to stoop in the slightest degree to greet our arriving guests. I had not seen either of the Hardings since I was in Washington the previous summer, and I must say that, looking at them through the windows, I was immediately struck by the changes in each. World-weary is the term that now comes to mind when I think back to how the President looked that day, with bags under his eyes and a somewhat florid hue that lay over his naturally bronzed skin. At first (as usual) he avoided my eyes. And puffy and haggard is how I recall the ever unhealthy but perpetually indomitable First Lady, looking out at us from that plush red and tan interior…