The Smoke-Filled Room (6-11-1920)

On this date in history, the President of the United States was chosen in a suite at the Blackstone Hotel.  And a new phrase entered the political dictionary.

In 1920, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was finishing up eight years in the White House.  The Republican Convention was being held at the Chicago Coliseum that June, and it looked like a good year for the party.  The country was in the mood for change.

Blackstone Hotel, 1920

The political conventions of today are nothing more than media events—by the time the opening gavel is banged, one candidate has locked up the nomination.  That wasn’t the case in 1920.  Back then local party bosses controlled things.  Several roll-call ballots were usually needed to pick a nominee.

When the Republicans gathered, there were two front-runners—General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden.  The balloting began.  Neither man could get a majority.  The party elders called a recess, then met behind closed doors at the Blackstone to work out a compromise.

Warren G. Harding was a Senator from Ohio.  He was one of the minor candidates, and few people outside his state had ever heard of him.  His main selling point seemed to be that he “looked like a President.”

Harry Daugherty, Harding’s campaign manager, had predicted the convention deadlock.  Then, he said, at about 2 in the morning, 15 or 20 men would be sitting around a table in a smoke-filled room, bleary-eyed from heat and lack of sleep.  The men would be looking for the best presidential candidate.

“At that decisive time,” Daugherty declared, “the friends of Senator Harding will suggest him.”

Daugherty was quite a prophet.  After several hours of wrangling, the party bosses summoned Harding to the power suite at the Blackstone.  It was just after 2 a.m.

Harding said it, 40 years before JFK (though not as poetically)

Harding was asked if there were anything in his past that might embarrass the party.  He said there was not.  He didn’t mention that he’d fathered a child outside his marriage, which would not have played well with the voters in 1920.

So the bosses annointed Harding.  He was quickly nominated, and won the November election in a landslide.  When he died in office in 1923, he was one of the most popular presidents in history.

And today—even with all the restrictions on smoking—we still call a private gathering of political fixers a “smoke-filled room.”



2 Responses to “The Smoke-Filled Room (6-11-1920)”

  1. 1 brecchie1 June 11, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    Lucky Harding, having died before all his scandals became known. There’s a reason why historians generally rank him as one of our worst presidents.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt June 12, 2018 at 2:49 pm

      Actually, Harding was unlucky in dying before the scandals came out. In 2004 John Dean wrote a Harding biography. Dean certainly knows about presidential scandals, and says that Harding has gotten a bad rap from historians. Dean is convinced that Harding knew nothing about the corruption. If Harding had lived, he would have cleaned house. Then his accomplishments would not have been overshadowed. Yes, death can be really inconvenient!

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