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Presidents in San Francisco

by Gail MacGowan

The celebration of Presidents’ Day on February 21 calls to mind some dramatic presidential moments that occurred in San Francisco. By far the most sensational encounter of a president with the City was that of Warren G. Harding, counted by some as the worst president in American history, who died at the Palace Hotel in 1923. As scandals began to surface about the graft and corruption that was rampant in his administration, Harding and his wife, Florence, set off from Washington, D.C. on a cross-county tour to strengthen his popularity with the American people.

Among his retinue was his homeopathic physician and close family friend, “Doc” Sawyer. Although Harding had exhibited signs of severe heart disease for some months, Doc insisted it was indigestion and that the President was fit for the exhausting journey. When the ten-car presidential train reached Alaska, it was announced that Harding had suffered food poisoning from eating tainted seafood, but that he was recovering. As he continued his journey south to Seattle, he suffered various attacks that Doc handled with purgatives, refusing to call in a physician. Finally, as Harding’s condition worsened, a physician was called in who immediately diagnosed severe heart disease. The party wired ahead requesting that a cardiologist from Stanford meet the president’s train upon its arrival in San Francisco. Although doctors wanted to have Harding carried off of the train on a stretcher, he insisted on dressing to greet the waiting crowd and participating in a brief arrival ceremony before taking a limousine – not an ambulance – to the Palace Hotel.

Doc continued to evade questions, referring to indigestion and lingering fatigue from the winter flu and repeatedly administering purgatives to rid Harding’s system of the alleged poison from bad food. Florence Harding insisted the president remain at the hotel and be treated by Doc rather than being taken to a hospital. The Hardings’ acquaintance Alice Roosevelt Longworth later referred to Doc as Florence Harding’s Rasputin for the absolute trust that she put in his faulty medical decisions. Harding had arrived in San Francisco on Sunday, July 29. Bulletins released from his sickroom in the Presidential Suite of the Palace Hotel continued to insist he was recovering. Thus it came as a shock to the nation when, at 7:30 pm on Thursday, August 2, Harding died. The cause was announced as a “stroke of apoplexy.” The refusal of those close to Harding to admit the seriousness of his heart condition, questions regarding Doc’s method of treatment, differing versions of who besides Florence Harding was in the room at the time of his death, continually unfolding scandals in Harding’s administration, including the Teapot Dome affair that was soon to surface, Harding’s long history of mistresses and lovers, Florence Harding’s refusal to allow an autopsy – all of these factors contributed to rumors of foul play surrounding the death. Two popular theories were that Florence poisoned him as a mercy killing before his administration’s misdeeds led to his impeachment, or in revenge for his adultery. However, it is now believed that Harding died of heart failure exacerbated by grossly incompetent diagnosis and treatment from Doc Sawyer.

San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel was the setting for another dramatic event in presidential history. On September 22, 1975, as President Gerald Ford was leaving the hotel’s Post Street entrance after a luncheon speech before the World Affairs Council, a shot rang out from the crowd vying for a glimpse of the president. The bullet fired by would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore ricocheted off a wall before hitting and superficially injuring a cab driver. As soon as Moore fired her .36-caliber revolver, bystander Oliver Sipple struck her arm from behind and a police officer was able to grab the gun and subdue Moore. She was later tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Moore had once been recruited by the FBI to gain information on the Patty Hearst kidnapping from her radical friends. She said her friends had dropped her when they learned she was an FBI informer, and that by shooting the president she hoped to regain their trust and friendship. This attack on President Ford’s life came only 17 days after Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pointed a loaded .45 caliber pistol at him from a distance of just two feet during his visit to Sacramento to address the Legislature. Her gun was wrested from her by police before any shots were fired.

Future presidential candidates may want to forget hiring expensive polling companies to tell them who will win and instead follow the lead of first lady Bess Truman. On a visit to San Francisco at the close of the grueling 1948 presidential campaign, Truman’s host took her for a visit to Chinatown’s Kong Chow Temple. Relocated in 1969 to Stockton and Clay Streets, at the time of Truman’s visit it was still in its original 1850s location on the top floor of 520 Pine Street. At the altar of patron deity Kuan Ti, Mrs. Truman shook the canisters of bamboo divination sticks, which revealed that her husband would win the election. It is said that after the prediction came true, Mrs. Truman requested a written copy to take back to Washington, D.C.

Credits Details about President Harding’s last days can be found in Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s biography Florence Harding (1998), available at the San Francisco Public Library, as well as in the clipping files of the Library’s History Room. Information about the attempts on President Ford’s life were culled from back issues of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Kong Chow Temple at 855 Stockton Street contains a newspaper clipping describing Bess Truman’s visit.

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