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From Outlook
Tales From the White House Coat Closet

By Paul Duke
Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page C03

opinion
Once upon a time, there was a president who was quite a ladies' man. He was a tall, affable, well-liked and handsome fellow with a gracious manner and silver voice.

He also had a roving eye, and long before coming to Washington, he had had a clandestine romantic relationship with a woman back in his home state. If his wife, a strong-willed and assertive person, knew about the affair, she never let on.

The president was an astute politician with many fine leadership qualities, but he was weak on morals and ethics. He desperately wanted to go down in history as a good and beloved president, and indeed he did some commendable things, such as taking a strong stand for better race relations. Much to the dismay of many of his supporters, he spoke out for giving blacks political and economic equality.

But his roving eye kept leading him astray. Before winning the presidency, he was swept up in a new affair with a 20-year-old woman who idolized the much older man. As the couple's meetings became more frequent, they became more reckless. During a visit to New York, they even ventured into a secluded section of Central Park to make love.

With the presidential election over, the young woman began making periodic visits to the White House, smuggled in with the help of Secret Service agents. The emboldened president would lead her into a coat closet where they would quickly embrace, once barely missing discovery by the first lady who had come looking for her husband.

When apart, they exchanged passionate love letters -- his to her sometimes ran up to 40 pages. The young woman began calling the president her "hero from afar."

He relished their moments as a refreshing diversion from matters of state -- even more so when his administration began to come under fire for rampant corruption and ethical laxity. The president felt increasingly besieged, so much so that he decided to get away and find solace among the people on a long cross-country speech-making trip.

But while on the West Coast, he suddenly became ill. A week later, on Aug. 2, 1923, 57-year-old Warren Harding collapsed and died in San Francisco.

The secret romance remained secret -- but not for long. The young woman, Nan Britton, told all in a book ("The President's Daughter") that quickly became a bestseller with its revelation that Harding had fathered their child. She also dreamed of having the story made into a movie. Hollywood squelched it. It was clear the time had not yet come to expose Americans to a film about such a daring true life adventure.

Paul Duke, the retired moderator of "Washington Week in Review," is now a senior commentator for public broadcasting.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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