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The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times” is Francis Russell’s 1968 biography of the 29th president.  The book is probably best known for controversy generated prior to its publication resulting from Russell’s discovery of a cache of letters between Harding and one of his mistresses.

The author intended to include excerpts from the letters in the biography but a lawsuit by the Harding family suppressed their disclosure. The reader, however, is never in any doubt as to the nature of the missing material and the controversy may have actually boosted sales of the book. Russell was a historian and prolific author; he died in 1989 at the age of 79.

While this biography is seemingly comprehensive and undeniably full of detail it fails, by a wide margin, to live up to its potential. And although Russell seems determined to provide the reader with the definitive biography of this former president, he is far more successful convincing his audience that Harding simply does not deserve a book of this length (663 pages).

Not only is this biography needlessly verbose but it also lacks punch. While it is sometimes accused of exposing the biases of its author, this biography disappoints not because it is scandalous but because it is filled with page after page of detail that reveals almost nothing substantive of Harding…short of demonstrating that he suffered a loveless marriage and filled the void with at least two affairs.

And while Russell seems determined to refurbish Harding’s lowly image, the man who emerges from these pages is at best a hapless, well-meaning back-slapper who miraculously rose to the nation’s highest office and found himself in over his head. But with almost no analytical glue to hold together the various stories, anecdotes and epistles, Harding is stranded as a two-dimensional caricature.

Harding’s tenure in the White House lasted just twenty-nine months, but I still found Russell’s description of his brief presidency haphazard and difficult to follow. The book’s narrative during these months seems to wander topically and chronologically, and I have a far better sense of Harding’s extramarital affairs during this period than of his presidential affairs.

Russell’s book is not without merit, however. He can be a shrewd observer of people and often provides interesting introductory material when weaving Harding’s friends or colleagues into the story. But even in these moments his writing style feels stodgy and dated.

The best chapter, by far, is “The Dark Convention” which describes how Harding obtained the Republican nomination for president in 1920. It also helps explain how someone of such middling talent managed to reach the highest political office in the nation. The book’s interesting penultimate chapter reviews the last years of the lives of the book’s major characters who, in some cases, outlived Harding by decades.

The final chapter in the book is an account of the author’s discovery of the Harding/Phillips letters and of the litigation which prevented their publication. As interesting as the back-story proves to be, this last chapter is of far less value than the final chapter which the book is missing: the one which critically but thoughtfully reviews Harding’s legacy.

Overall, Francis Russell’s “The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding in His Times” proves more frustrating than enlightening. Although it doesn’t quite exude the feel of a tabloid expose, neither does it convey the impression of a deliberate, well-organized and thoughtful work of a great biographer. In the end, Francis Russell’s biography of Warren Harding is barely more inspiring than Harding himself.

Overall rating: 2¾ stars

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