The hot summer of August 1923

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The summer presses down on Washington like a damp, hot thumb. It did so 60 years ago when Harding got away from it all to go to Alaska. There was no air conditioning in Washington then. You went north to cool off. Harding hadn't asked to be president. He was a small-town editor in Ohio who spent six years in the Senate. He followed the conservatives on tariffs and Henry Cabot Lodge on foreign affairs (against Woodrow Wilson) and in W.S. Gilbert's phrase he ''never thought of thinking for himself at all.'' Handsome and amiable and just the right man to be a presidential candidate under the random American system of selection. (All set forth in Chapter 8 of James Bryce's two-volume ''The American Commonwealth,'' 1895 - the chapter headed ''Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.'')

A young reporter who came down to Washington from Boston in a Model T to work at the news bureau of The Christian Science Monitor liked Harding. ''He was frank in confessing his limitations,'' wrote William Allen White in ''A Puritan in Babylon,'' ''disarming in his candor to his friends, and even to casual acquaintances and always to newspapermen who crowded into his press conferences every Friday.'' He went on: ''He stood before them bland, charming, even jovial at times, but with an actor's sense of dignity; a fine, well set up figure of a man, clearly of the emotional type, with the eager, wistful lineaments of a friendly pup written on every flexible feature, with the warmth of a woman's cordial glow in his eyes.''

But what were these rumors of scandal in his administration? We in the press didn't believe them. We liked Harding. He had had the usual two years' sufferance from the press. For the public he represented The Average Man put in high office. We saw ourselves in his place. The rumors? Sen. Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, the austere self-taught lawyer from Two Rivers, Wis., didn't believe them. But evidence became bewildering. That was while the President was in Alaska. How about those naval oil reserves? A seaplane caught up with the President's ship just after it had reached its most northern point and delivered a long message in code. The message came from Washington. After reading it the President called Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to his closed stateroom. He seemed driven and exhausted. Harding told no one what the message contained and it was destroyed.

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''If you knew of a great scandal in our administration,'' he asked Hoover, ''what would you do?''

''Publish it,'' Hoover said promptly. He asked for more particulars. But Harding told no one. He seemed stricken. And so in early August, 60 years ago, the stunning news came to the nation. The front page of the New York Times, Friday, Aug. 3, 1923, was edged in black. Six decades ago this capital and the nation were making one of their most dramatic and cruel transitions. Calvin Coolidge, the little man in Plymouth, Vt., was 30th President.

It was a simple and tremendous scene. The new President took the oath of office from his father, John C. Coolidge, a justice of the peace, by oil lamp, from the family Bible in Vermont. It was 2:47 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. News came to Plymouth Notch by telegraph from the West Coast from George C. Christian , Mr. Harding's secretary. Then it was brought to the Coolidge home by W. A. Perkins who owned the telephone line running from Bridgewater to Plymouth. Five minutes after Mr. Perkins came, the newspapermen arrived at Ludlow.

I used to watch Calvin Coolidge and wonder about him. He was Small Town America, paying $36 a month rent for his duplex apartment as governor in Massachusetts (raised from $27). As President he had his customary afternoon nap; he made running America seem so easy! The stock market thought so, too: he handed over the ''Coolidge boom'' to his unfortunate successor, Herbert Hoover.

Coolidge himself? He sometimes had a mordant gleam like the beady eye of a parrot before it tweaks you. Sixty years ago we settled down to getting used to Silent Cal, and all the new Coolidge jokes. In the background the sordid story of Teapot Dome continued to unfold - but we knew Coolidge was honest. The scandal never touched him.

What drama there is in this unpredictable city, to be sure.

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