And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall
Street, cash and collateral turned ashes . . . in the
dust, in the cool tombs.
–Carl Sandburg, “Cool Tombs”
And then there was Warren Harding. Our 29th president may not have been the last philandering chief executive to enjoy the friendship of a press that knew just when to look the other way, but, given the audacious scope of his peccadilloes, he certainly was among the luckiest. Today, a president cannot suffer a paper cut without the wound sending off the scent of blood to tabloid shark tanks, but Harding’s easygoing times were governed by the old Washington adage that a politician can do pretty much anything, as long as he doesn‘t get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live man. And so his adoring public never suspected that the man from Marion, Ohio, was such a complex figure — a libertine from the Puritan Midwest, a boozer during Prohibition and the assembler of the most corrupt administration since Ulysses Grant’s.
A president whose favorite duty was to shake hands with the public he allowed to freely stream through the White House, Harding was the ultimate nice guy, which is the shading given him by James Staley‘s new play, Everyone’s Friend, now running at the Whitefire Theater. Even now, across the gulf of 80 years, recordings of his friendly, unaffected voice still soothe the ear when he proclaims the republic of normalcy — a Reagan without the agenda. As it is with all con games, timing is everything in politics, and Harding was the man of the moment for his uncomplicated times. Staley shows us that in an era that favored men of patrician bearing and unimposing intellects, Harding was the perfect antidote for Americans wearied by Woodrow Wilson‘s idealism and obsessed with making money on the stock market.
Harding was not without his critics, but no one could slow the ascent of this charmer who seemed to make his own weather — a weather, among other things, in which it was always raining women. Early on in the play, in a moment set in 1891, we find Florence Kling (Marcia Rodd), with whom Harding (Michael Shannon) has had an affair, making her case to him for matrimony. A woman of steely ambition and a keen appreciation of her own disadvantages (she was a divorcee, older than Harding and often in poor health), the “Duchess” employs a little Machiavellian logic to persuade him to settle down with her.
Unhappily for Florence, Harding continues to appease his rapacious appetite for young women, presented here in the comely forms of Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton (Amy Lindsay and Ranjani Brow). With the Duchess’ grudging acceptance, Harding carries on a 15-year affair with Phillips and fathers a child with Britton, with whom he will famously dally in a White House closet. Somewhere among Harding‘s skirt-chasing, he found time to serve in the Ohio Legislature and U.S. Senate before reluctantly permitting his party’s power brokers to anoint him as a compromise presidential candidate in 1920. By the end of Act 1, after “campaigning” from his front yard in Marion, Harding is swept into office, appoints his cronies to Cabinet posts, and then sits back and watches them cannonball into the muck of graft and scandal.
There is an undeniable shrewdness in Staley‘s choice of subject: A study of Harding is like a voyeuristic glimpse at some distant planet that is rarely discussed at the local planetarium. Harding was, after all, a magnificent specimen of the American leisurecrat, a golfing, do-nothing pol created by circumstance and publicists, an amoral Rotarian who never blinked an eye over the discrepancy between his public homilies and his private appetites. Here was an unambitious mediocrity who should never have left Grovers Corner, let alone moved to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Unfortunately, Staley’s play falls flat on all the important fronts. Everyone‘s Friend is constructed as a presentation of short scenes punctuated by soliloquies in which characters unburden themselves of their feelings and hopes — just in case we missed these during the set pieces. Stranger still, nearly every scene avoids a moment of decision or action, being set either before or after it — we never see Harding meeting with the GOP bosses at the bloodbath that was the 1920 Chicago convention, never catch him flagrante delicto with Mlles. Phillips or Britton, and never meet the principals involved in the Teapot Dome oil scandal, which to this day is the event most vividly associated with Harding’s presidency. Instead, almost every scene is one of prologue or aftermath, inadvertently lending Staley‘s play an experimental, vaguely German anti-dramatic theatricality.
Even this strategy might have worked if approached with an appropriate sense of dislocation or irony, but the Whitefire production is also gimped by Vickery Turner’s overearnest direction, which treats the script like some reverential biopic whose forward motion solely involves chronology and not character development. As if this weren‘t bad enough, little about Turner’s staging comes close to suggesting Harding‘s era, from the cast’s hairstyles to Heather Porsche Bre‘s mismatched costuming. (Did the men in Harding’s time really hold up their trousers with both suspenders and belts?)
As Harding, actorco-producer Shannon masterfully conceals his subject‘s charisma and psychology from us, remaining opaquely affable from beginning to end. It doesn’t help that he looks nothing like Harding, disdaining to compromise his lack of similarity even by whitening and combing his hair to match the man he is portraying. Perhaps this is why Shannon‘s stiff Harding seems more likely to jump into bed with a good book than a bad broad. (Watching Robert F. Lyons, who performs a nice turn as Harding’s snaky confidant, Harry Daugherty, one cannot help but mentally switch the actors and their roles.) Ultimately, it may have been better to have had the two leads played by younger actors who “age” as the play progresses rather than by middle-aged actors who simply cannot convincingly appear to be in their 20s and early 30s, as are Harding and the Duchess, respectively, when they first meet.
What we‘re supposed to learn from Everyone’s Friend is never clear. There is a short scene where Harding as president denounces the mistreatment of blacks, and, given Harding‘s rumored Negro ancestry, we wonder for a moment if his motivation might be a little more personal than anyone realized at the time, but this possibility is never broached again. There is even a revisionist bid to polish Harding’s reputation by blaming everything on the men he handpicked for his Cabinet; this plea, ventriloquized through Florence, comes at the very end of the play, after Harding has suffered his fatal stroke in San Francisco. It‘s then that we realize we’ve been watching a one-man show with supporting actors. (Ironically, this is a story that cries out for a multiroled ensemble.)
Harding‘s administration benignly tolerated or introduced the 12-hour workday, the use of child labor and the passage of tariffs that would prove fatal to many farmers. Harding himself temporarily escaped the taint of scandal through one last deft feat of timing: He died shortly before congressional hearings into Teapot Dome and other outrages began. Harding’s interior secretary, Hubert Work, explained the president‘s fatal collapse by saying, “The president, physical and intellectual giant that he is, was overtaxed.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth expressed a more citric opinion of Harding’s mental capabilities. “Harding was not a bad man,” she remarked. “He was just a slob.” Yet given what we know about our presidents since Harding, that doesn‘t sound like such a bad epitaph after all.