Lust for power: Trove of President Warren Harding’s love letters reveal steamy affair

Jonathan Karl, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Politics Confidential

Warren Harding is typically remembered as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. But a soon-to-be-released trove of love letters between the 29th president and his longtime mistress also reveal that he may have been one of the most passionate.

“Some of them are truly beautiful -- about what does it mean to be in love,” said James David Robenalt, the author of “The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War.” “‘This is the big love,’ he says, ‘This is the surpassing love.’”

Some of the letters include soaring poetry and lurid sexual fantasies.

“Three weeks ago [this robe] touched and covered your beautiful form, and that made it hallowed to me, and I wanted contact with it, to make me seem nearer to you,” Warren wrote to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips in one letter. “And I wanted to sit before the fire afterward, in freedom of dress, and dream of you and of loving you, intimately.”

“It gets very explicit in there,” said Robenalt, who went on to put the passage into context.

“They went to Montreal. She wore that bathrobe. So he's, three weeks later, remembering and reveling in the whole thing,” he said. “And the thing I tell people is, ‘A hundred years ago, our ancestors did have sexual fantasies, and if they didn't, we wouldn't be here today.’”

But Robenalt, the only person aside from Harding’s mistress to have read the more than 900 pages worth of love letters that will be made public by the Library of Congress on July 29, also told “Politics Confidential” that he believes the letters reveal a progressive and thoughtful political leader.

Many of the letters, written over the course of the decade before Harding became president, show then-Sen. Harding’s inner-most thoughts on the question of whether the United States should get involved in World War I.

Robenalt said there is “strong evidence” that Phillips went on to become a spy for Germany during World War I, and that in the lead-up to the United States’ entry into the war, she tried to influence Harding to oppose the war.

“She tried to, but he eventually writes to her, ‘I know that it will ruin our relationship, but I'm going to do my duty and vote for war. I'm voting as my conscience tells me I must do,’” Robenalt said.

In voting for the war, Harding not only made a break from Phillips; Robenalt points out that he also made a break from then-President Woodrow Wilson in his reasoning for submitting to war.

“Woodrow Wilson said, ‘We're going to make the world safe for democracy,’” Robenalt said. “Harding got up that night and said, ‘[It’s] none of our business to tell another government what form of government they should have.’ … And that's lost in all the ‘Warren Harding was the worst president ever’ and the love letters and so forth -- that's a big message that needs to come out.”

Harding’s affair with Phillips ultimately came to an end during Harding’s presidential campaign. Phillips blackmailed Harding and threatened to make their affair public. Harding wrote to Phillips offering to pay $5,000 a year in exchange for her silence while he stayed in public office.

For more of the interview with Robenalt, including the fascinating story behind the race to protect these letters and the parallels between Harding’s affair and those of other presidents, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, DJ Amerson, Steve Bottorff, Hank Brown and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.