Friday, September 26, 2014

Walter G. Clippinger and Warren G. Harding: Did the “G” stand for “Grumble”?

[Above:  Warren G. Harding at his desk;  Otterbein President Walter G. Clippinger in 1919.]

Walter G. Clippinger and Warren G. Harding: Did the “G” stand for “Grumble”?


            1920 was a presidential election year that pitted two Ohioans against each other.  Republican Senator Warren G. Harding of Marion and Democrat Governor James Cox of Cincinnati faced off in a battle that hinged on the entry of the U.S. into the League of Nations and the legacy of retiring president Woodrow Wilson.

            In Westerville, as in many other Ohio towns, there was much discussion over the two relatively unknown Buckeyes.  An interesting exchange of letters between Otterbein College President Walter G. Clippinger and college trustee Hamilton Holt survives to show that, while many Ohioans were excited, some were markedly unenthusiastic about their choices.

            President Clippinger, in a letter to Holt dated October 1, 1920, wrote that he had many contacts over the years with Cox.  A devout churchman, Clippinger approved of editorials questioning Cox’s suitability as a divorced man.  But Harding was not a man he knew much about:

I shall vote for Harding for president, but with no enthusiasm or zeal.  I do not know Harding personally.  All I can gather leads me to believe that he is a passive diplomat…[1]

Not surprisingly, Clippinger was looking for a college educated man.  Of Harding and Cox:

Their souls have not been expanded and their ability to think great things and to promote great ideals is restricted to the narrow business sphere in which they have operated.[2]

            When Holt replied, he seconded Clippinger’s distaste for the candidates:

I see exactly how you feel.  I hope the best man will win.  Personally I am for Cox, tho I shall vote for him with as many misgivings as you shall vote for Harding.  I size it up that Harding is a fourth rate man and Cox is a second.[3]

            When Harding was elected the next month, Clippinger had to keep his doubts to himself.  Having a President of the United States practically from the neighborhood forced Clippinger to play the part of a warm supporter of Harding whether he wanted to or not. 

            In 1922, when Otterbein was preparing to celebrate its 75th Anniversary,
Clippinger called in a favor.  In his own words, he asked Harding’s help for a pet project:

            … I am asking a number of public men to state their appreciation of the denominational college as a training agency for church and national leadership…. Would you be kind enough to dictate two or three sentences touching these points?[4]

            President Harding happily reciprocated:

It is always a pleasure to extend encouragement to efforts to strengthen this department of our educational system, and I trust that the effort in behalf of Otterbein College…may be crowned with the success which your excellent institution so well deserves.[5]

            That did not mean that Harding was at the beck and call of Clippinger.  When Clippinger forwarded a booklet to the White House regarding an appeal for funds, Florence Harding, the First Lady, had her secretary send their thanks, but no more than that.[6]  This probably was no slap at Westerville, Otterbein, or Clippinger.  The First Lady was ill, at the time, and the President was already in failing health, which led to his untimely death on August 2, 1923.

            The story ends there.  It is tempting to read into this that Dr. Clippinger was being a little two-faced.  He was not a fervent Harding supporter in 1920, and was not present at the dinner party for Harding when he visited Westerville in December of that year.[7] Two years later he was obsequious when asking Harding for a small favor.  More likely, Clippinger was making use of the symbolic change in Warren G. Harding, who in those same two years changed from a second rate Ohio senator to the Chief Executive of the whole United States.  Clippinger, with his dedication to Otterbein, could not help but take advantage of that change.

[1] Walter G. Clippinger to Hamilton Holt, October 1, 1920.  Presidents Papers, Otterbein University, Westerville, Ohio.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hamilton Holt to Walter G. Clippinger, October 5, 1920.  Presidents Papers, Otterbein University, Westerville, Ohio.
[4] Walter G. Clippinger to Warren G. Harding, January 3, 1922, Ibid.
[5] Warren G. Harding to Walter G. Clippinger, January 6, 1922.  Ibid.
[6] Laura Harlan, Secretary to Mrs. Harding, to Walter G. Clippinger, October 11, 1922.  Ibid.
[7] Westerville Public Opinion, December 23, 1920.

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