The President’s Grandson

President Warren G. Harding was one of the most popular Presidents of the United States at the time of his death in office in 1923. Since his death, Harding’s reputation has declined precipitously to the point that he is now regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The Teapot Dome scandal, which was only uncovered after Harding’s death has tainted his reputation, even though he was never implicated and was only made aware of the magnitude of the illegal dealings just before his death. It does reflect badly on Harding’s judgement of character that several of his appointees, including his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, Charles Forbes, were sent to prison for crimes committed while in office. His Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, only narrowly escaped a prison term.

Warren G Harding
Warren G Harding

Throughout Harding’s presidency there were rumors of his affairs. The most persistent of these rumors  involved a woman named Nan Britton who claimed to have an affair with Harding throughout his presidency in her 1928 book, The President’s Daughter.

Nan Britton and Elizabeth
Nan Britton and Elizabeth Ann

Britton identified Harding as the father of her daughter Elizabeth Ann, and claimed that he had promised to support their daughter, but Harding’s wife, Florence, had reneged on the promise after his death. Nan Britton had no real proof of her claims and was generally dismissed as a liar or delusional. Now, however, as I read in this story I found in the Oregonian,  DNA evidence confirms Nan Britton’s grandson, Jim Bleasing, is indeed the grandson of President Warren G. Harding. There is a good story about this in the Oregonian.

Jim Blaesing has known since he was a boy that he was the grandson of Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States.

The Southeast Portland man was very close to his grandmother, who openly shared stories of her love for the man who took office in 1921. And it’s always bothered him that so many people had dismissed her as “delusional” or labeled her as money-hungry, a fame seeker.

Nan Britton was disbelieved not only by members of Harding’s family, who proclaimed the story of the 6½ -year love affair a lie, but the history buffs who vigorously tried to discredit her over the decades.

“It just kept yanking at me and bugging me,” said Blaesing, a 65-year-old construction contractor.

So he finally decided to do something: Get his DNA tested.

All of those doubters were silenced last week with news — first reported on the front page of The New York Times — that Blaesing is indeed the grandson of the late president. Ancestry.com confirmed his relationship to Harding with a more than 99 percent certainty, by comparing Blaesing’s DNA with that of Harding’s grandnephew and grandniece.

There is a lot more there about Harding and his relationship with Nan Britton, but I am more interested in President Harding’s historical reputation. I am not sure he really deserves such a low ranking. If the Teapot Dome and other scandals count against President Harding, there are several solid accomplishments that in fairness ought to be held in his favor. If all too many of Harding’s appointees turned out to be corrupt or incompetent, some of the men he appointed to his cabinet have been among the best men who have ever served a president. These included Harding’s
Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. (Hoover’s lackluster tenure as president has tended to overshadow his very real accomplishments. In fact, Hoover was successful in every post he held except the presidency.)

In foreign policy, the Harding administration formally ended US involvement in World War I, a move necessary because the Senate had not ratified the Versailles treaty which ended the war. The State Department under Hughes began the negotiations that led to the agreement in 1924 to ease the burden of the war debts that the allies owed to the United States as well as the reparations applied to Germany. Hughes also participated in the disarmament talks which led to the agreement between the United States, Great Britain and Japan to limit the sizes of their navies. This did not turn out so well in hindsight, but no one knew that at the time, and Harding was eager to reduce the expenses that maintaining a large military entailed. Harding also curtailed US interventionism in Latin America, ending Wilson’s practice of invading Latin American nations on the slightest of pretexts.

In domestic policy, Harding inherited a nasty depression. Andrew Mellon proposed fighting the downturn with tax cuts. This policy seems to have worked well enough since the depression only lasted a year and there was an economic boom which lasted until 1929 and the Great Depression. It might seem that Harding’s record on the economy was rather better than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. Like everyone else at the time, Harding believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites, yet he believed that they should be given a fair chance and equal rights under the law. Harding supported federal anti-lynching legislation, but was never able to get it passed because of opposition from the Democrats. Harding also pardoned Eugene Debs and other people who Wilson had put in prison for opposing US participation in World War I. Despite the scandals, Harding did have a solid record of accomplishments in his short tenure in the White House, so why the bad press?

I think that part of the reason that Harding has become unpopular, at least among progressive historians, is that he campaigned on, and largely governed on, the theme that it was time for America to return to normalcy. He did not call for the sort of fundamental transformation of the nation and the world that Progressive Era presidents as Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson had. Compared to those two, more activist presidents, the Harding administration must have seemed dull and contemptible to the sort of people who desired a continuation of the reforms of the Progressive Era.

There may also have been some snobbishness involved. Harding was not an intellectual as Wilson or a member of a prominent family like the Roosevelts. He came from Marion Ohio, a small midwestern town. He did not attend Harvard or Princeton but Ohio Central College. He worked his way up from humble origins as the owner and publisher of the Marion Star, a failing newspaper that he managed to turn around to become successful. Despite his success in business and later in politics, Harding preferred the small town life. Harding himself was not known to be corrupt but he was something of a “good old boy”, the sort of back slapping local businessman or politician who is friends with everybody and a member of the all the clubs and is always ready for convivial poker games. In other words he was Babbitt, the sort of comfortable, ordinary member of the middle class or bourgeois that the more progressive intellectuals have always disdained. This dislike for the unintellectual Harding may have helped not a little to color the opinion of historians against Harding, condemning him for faults they might have forgiven in a president they felt more affection for.

I wouldn’t make the argument that Warren G. Harding was a great, or even a particularly good, president. He was not really up to the job and he showed a terrible lack of judgement in some of his appointments. Still, he did less damage to the country than some presidents better regarded than he. We could do worse.

The Violinist’s Thumb

It seems that not a day passes without DNA being in the news somewhere. This molecule can determine guilt or innocence, identify bodies, reveal the possibility of having many diseases, and can reveal the past histories of organisms, including human beings. The progress that science has made in studying genetics and that molecule that keeps our genetic information is all the more remarkable when you consider that only a century ago, little was known about the subject and biology was in a state of disorder, trying to reconcile the concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s discoveries of inheritable characteristic called genes.

Sam Kean tells the story of DNA in his book The Violinist’s Thumb with the same skill and flair as he did with the periodic table in The Disappearing Spoon. This is no dry text on biochemistry, but a fascinating history of the discovery of DNA and its role in genetics, meeting many interesting, and some eccentric characters along the way. The story begins with the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his experiments with pea plants. He did more than gardening and was something of an embarrassment to the monastery he was to serve as abbot. At about the same time, there was Johannes Friedrich Miescher who discovered DNA in pus soaked bandages and salmon semen. There was Thomas Hunt Morgan who studied the heredity of fruit flies in his “fly room” and discovered that genes are carried on chromosomes. There is even a mad scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, who sought to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid with the help of the Soviet government.

13521382

One of the greatest scientific accomplishments of recent years is the Human Genome Project, the ambitious project to sequence the entire human genome. As Sam Kean shows, this was not a model of scientific and rational work, but an intense competition or race between two teams, one financed by the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, the other a private venture led by Craig Venter. With the competition between the two teams, the project was finished well ahead of schedule, but biologists are still sorting out what it all means. Among the more unexpected discoveries is that a certain percentage of our DNA was actually contributed by viruses.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, and some personal notes by Mr. Kean, the book ends. The story of DNA in ongoing and who can tell where the latest discoveries will lead us. Perhaps Kean will be able to write a sequel or second edition in about ten years or so.

Jurassic Park Unlikely

Jurassic Park (film)
Won’t happen.

It would seem that we won’t be able to visit Jurassic Park any time soon. According to this article in the Telegraph, resurrecting dinosaurs is probably impossible.

A study by Western Australia‘s Murdoch University concluded that DNA cannot survive more than 6.8 million years – a finding that effectively rules out the tantalising prospect of replicating dinosaurs. Most dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago.

“We’ve been permanently plagued by this Jurassic Park myth that’s been kicking around since the early nineties,” lead researcher Mike Bunce told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The myth is still out there. Even other scientists ask whether it is possible.”

Scientists have long sought to examine whether dinosaur DNA may have survived – a prospect envisaged by the Michael Crichton bestseller and Stephen Spielberg film. Several papers claiming that 135 million-year-old insect DNA had been extracted from amber were later debunked after it was found the remains had been contaminated with human genetic material.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was based on carbon-dating bones from the moa, an extinct New Zealand bird. The researchers found that the DNA from the bones halved after about 521 years when stored at 13.1 degrees. At minus five degrees, the final fragments of DNA in a bone would disappear after 6.8 million years.

Well, that is disappointing. If it is extremely unlikely that they can clone dinosaurs, then it is absolutely impossible that they could ever bring back my favorite prehistoric creatures, trilobites.

I guess I won’t be getting any of these for my aquarium.