I’m not one to celebrate the good old days, because in so many ways they were the bad old days. Nor do I begrudge the explosion of technology that shapes our lives in this century. We live in an era that benefits from a remarkably shrinking planet and remarkably expanding knowledge.
Still, it’s doubtful we will ever again leave for future generations the expressions of beauty and love that the great writers and thinkers bequeathed us in more leisurely times. And I’m not talking about that long ago. We have only to go back slightly more than a hundred years to retrieve those luscious letters that soon-to-be-President Warren G. Harding wrote to his next-door neighbor, Carrie Fulton Phillips. He went on to become arguably the worst president in U.S. history, but the boy could write a gloriously smutty letter.
Mrs. Phillips lived on his street back in Ohio, and to put it mildly, he loved his neighbor. Warren was head over heels. Never mind that each was married to someone else and never mind that she was very pro-German — if his letters to her were any indication, he was obsessed with her.
Much of his stuff was too explicit for a family newspaper, even in these times. George Carlin would have had a field day. But let’s edit some of the good stuff, and you can fill in the blanks: Sept. 15, 1913: “Honestly, I hurt with the insatiate longing, until I feel that there will never be any relief until I take a long, deep, wild draught on your lips and then bury my face on your pillowing (blanks)”. Nearly three years before, he wrote: “I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter, so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless (blanks), in your incomparable embrace.”
It didn’t seem that Harding was a leg man. But he sure did have a way with words. He carried on like that for 10 years, 106 letters, which stopped shortly before he became president in 1921. He died in office after just two years, suffering an apparent heart attack. Is it any wonder?
Only now does the agreement with his family allow for the public release of his passionate missives to his paramour. However else history judges him, it is clear he was “Fifty Shades of Grey” before it was cool.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m focusing on such prurient stuff. There are at least two reasons: First of all, I’m immature. But beyond that, there’s that observation about how the same high tech that has made our society so efficient is taking something away too — in this case, some extended smut. Compare that with sexting. Even something less disgusting like tweeting just doesn’t cut it. You just cannot reveal your innermost longing with any style in 140 characters.
The frenetic way we communicate can be totally accurate at the same time it distorts, whether it’s private lust or public policy. One of our big problems is how very complicated issues — health care, immigration, the economy — are reduced to brief word spurts and deceptive sloganeering. Speed is everything. Our attention span is microscopic, so we have no patience for anything that requires more than an instant of focus. Even though we see so much more, we comprehend so much less.
Warren G. Harding and Carrie Phillips were able to experience the full pleasure of their affair. It’s hard to pull that off when romance is expressed in such abrupt ways. Today, our words race too quickly for us to experience how they make us feel. And frankly, too fast for us to comprehend much of anything.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.