A century ago, a Seattle speech foreshadowed a president’s death
By Clay Eals
Today we ruminate over presidents of advanced age. But a century ago, the U.S. president was Warren G. Harding, then just 57.
In 1923, his third presidential year, Harding mounted a grueling, two-month journey through the American West, with final stops planned in Washington, Oregon and California. Before sailing north to Alaska (then a territory), he addressed 25,000 on July 5 in Tacoma. Back south in Seattle on July 27, he spoke to 30,000, including many Boy Scouts, at Woodland Park and 30,000 at filled-to-capacity University of Washington (now Husky) Stadium.
Six days later … he died.
His Seattle speeches were the last for a president who — despite affability, enthusiasm and a statesman’s countenance — left professional and personal scandals in his wake. Today, historians rate him among America’s worst presidents.
A rural Ohio newspaperman who had risen to U.S. senator, Harding was a reluctant compromise candidate during the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago, emerging from a proverbially smoke-filled room.
Three years after his election, his 5 hours in Seattle played an unintentional role in his demise. He had traveled 5,246 miles via rail, car and steamship in just 22 days. After his Woodland Park appearance, plus a downtown parade and reception at Volunteer Park, his major speechifying ended at the UW.
There, wrote biographer Francis Russell, Harding’s cheeks looked green, and his jaws were “set in pain.” While speaking, the president “hesitated, slurred his words [and] called Alaska ‘Nebraska.’ ”
Midway, Harding “began to falter, dropped the manuscript and grasped the desk,” recounted Herbert Hoover, secretary of commerce (and later president), who sat behind Harding, picked up the scattered sheafs and quickly organized and fed Harding the remaining pages. Harding, Hoover wrote, “managed to get through the speech.”
“PRESIDENT ILL!” screamed a Seattle Times banner the next day. Reportedly contracting ptomaine from poisonous crabmeat en route from Alaska, Harding was ordered to bed rest on his train. His tour abruptly ended.
“PRESIDENT IS DEAD” shouted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer front page on Aug. 3. His evening passing, in a San Francisco hotel, came from a heart attack. Five hours later, in Vermont, his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, was sworn in as his successor.
“He had no business being president, but strange things happen,” says Mike Purdy, presidential historian, of West Seattle, who says Harding lacked the wisdom and vision for the role.
Harding himself offered confirmation: “The presidency is hell. There is no other word to describe it,” he once said. “I knew this job would be too much for me. I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”
Thanks to Ron Edge, Greg Lange, Wendy Malloy, Gigi Allianic and Craig Newberry of Woodland Park Zoo, the PBS series “The American President” and especially Mike Purdy for their invaluable help with this installment!
To see Clay Eals‘ 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.