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The Smoke-filled Room

April 2024
6min read

A “smoke-filled room,” as every politician knows, is where the other party’s bosses secretly choose their candidate. One’s own standard-bearer, of course, is selected openly and freely by the divinely inspired delegates of the People. To the newsmen and television commentators a smoke-filled room is one where they couldn’t get in.

It all goes back to the Republican convention of 1920, when after a day of indecisive balloting Warren G. Hording, a dark horse, was supposed to have received the bosses’ nod in the first so-called smokefilled room, and Calvin Coolidge was then picked as his running mate. On this, Mark Sullivan commented in Our Times : …I doubt whether a nomination for the Presidency (or anything else) ever merely ‘happens,’ always it must be brought about and always somebody must play the part of brmger about. ”

The truth, alas, is not always what political writers and commentators tell us it is. A very different version of what took place in Chicago more than a half century ago was recorded in 1952 by the sole survivor of the original smoke-filled room, former senator James W. Wadsworth of New York, who died shortly afterward. His story, as related in an interview for the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, is as follows:

Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, was certainly what might be termed a receptive candidate for the Republican nomination in Chicago, as was Senator Miles Poindexter, from the state of Washington. The two outstanding candidates, however, were General Leonard Wood and Governor Frank O. Lowden, the former governor of Illinois. Another candidate who was running third, let us say, was Governor Hiram Johnson of California, who had run on the Roosevelt ticket as candidate for Vice President in 1912.

The convention met at Chicago, and after two or three days of balloting an apparently hopeless deadlock occurred between Wood and Lowden. It was finally apparent by Friday night (Friday was the next to the last day of the week in which the convention sat) that neither of them could be nominated. The weather was extremely hot. The delegates sat in their shirt sleeves. “What will we do? What will we do?”

A goodly share of the press at that time emphasized and has emphasized for a long time since what went on in what came to be known as the “smoke-filled room” in which it was alleged that the nomination of Harding was decided upon. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was chairman of the New York delegation and as such it was my duty to move around just as much as I could to find out what was going on. Personally I had been supporting Lowden.…

Then we come to the “smoke-filled room.” That was a room on an upper floor of the Blackstone Hotel which was reserved and occupied by George Harvey, the publisher of Harvey’s Weekly and later ambassador to London on the appointment of President Harding. He happened to have this big room up there and the Republican leaders very early in the convention got in the habit of dropping in. I went in there time and again. …

The last time I was in that room after a good many visits was at about one o’clock in the morning of Saturday, the last day of the convention. Present were Senators Lodge [of Massachusetts], Reed Smoot [of Utah], Frank B. Brandegee [of Connecticut], Charles Curtis of Kansas, James E. Watson of Indiana, and others, and other state chairmen of their respective states. … I say these men were in there—they came and went, in and out, in and out. By midnight of Friday after the convention had been balloting at least two days— I can’t remember all the details as to the number of ballots—and the deadlock had persisted, those men who came in and out of that room, the famous smoke-filled room, did not know what to do. They reached no decision whatsoever. Some would say, “Wouldn’t it be a good thing to do this?” “Wouldn’t it be a good thing to do that?” …

Some talked about Harding, some talked about Nicholas Murray Butler, some talked about Johnson, and some talked about the chairman of the Republican National Committee who later became head of the movie industry, Will Hays. None of them seemed satisfactory. If there ever was a crowd of men who behaved like a bunch of chickens with their heads off it was these alleged conspirators who gathered in this smoke-filled room.

I left that room at one-thirty A.M. on Saturday morning. Walking down a deserted corridor upstairs in the Blackstone Hotel I ran into Warren Harding quite by accident. He stopped me.

He said, “Jim, what do you know?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know anything.”

“Do you think I have got a chance?”

“I don’t know. I can’t give you a reliable estimate.”

“I think I have a chance if I can gain some votes on the first roll call tomorrow morning.” (He should have said this morning.) “If I can show a gain on the first roll call I believe that a lot of the adherents of Wood and Lowden will give up their devotion to those men respectively and come to me. I don’t know. I think that might happen. What do you think the New York delegation will do?”

“The New York delegation is going to have a meeting at nine-thirty o’clock this morning.” …

Harding said to me, “Do you think I will gain some votes in the New York delegation?”

I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” …s

I should say that this conversation indicated to me that Harding had had a change of mind about wanting to be President. When Harding was finally launched into this thing he really did become tremendously interested. It bit hard. He was anxious to win. For a long, long time prior to his actual announcement of his candidacy, which he always said he was forced to do to meet a political situation in Ohio, he didn’t want to leave the Senate. …

Let us note what happened on the morning of that Saturday. I can’t remember the day of the month, but it was a Saturday. The New York delegation of ninety members met at about nine-thirty that morning in its hotel headquarters. On a roll call instead of only two delegates being for Harding, eight delegates announced they were going to vote for him. …s I was still voting for Lowden.

When the convention met and the roll call started one thing became apparent. Johnson of California had been running number three during the deadlock between Lowden and Wood. No considerable portion of the Lowden or Wood supporters would ever vote for Johnson. His number three was considerably behind both Lowden and Wood largely because Johnson had run for Vice-President with Theodore Roosevelt against the Republican Party only eight years before. So they wouldn’t shift to Johnson.

When the state of Kansas was reached on the roll call, all twenty Kansas delegates switched to Harding. It created a sensation on the floor of the convention. Here were 900 or 1,000 sweating fellows in their shirt-sleeves wondering, “Why in heaven’s name can’t we settle this thing?” After the Kansas delegation was called, other delegations began, here and there, drifting toward Harding, so that at the end of that first roll call Harding had more votes than Johnson. That put him up to number three and both Wood and Lowden had come down a little.

The average delegate saw that neither Wood nor Lowden could be nominated. Most of them were against Johnson. Why not be for Harding? It was as simple as that. There was nothing against Harding in those days. He was a very presentable man, very handsome and a fine good Republican. He had been temporary chairman of the convention four years before and had made a most excellent impression. All the delegates who had been to that convention and were at this convention in 1920 remembered him. Why not Harding? It was psychological … not an hysterical atmosphere in which they flocked to Harding on the next roll call in overwhelming numbers. They got no orders to do it from the “smoke-filled room” or elsewhere. …

Now how about the nomination for the Vice President? As the final roll call was going on and it became certain that Harding would be nominated, Senators Medill McCormick of Illinois, Watson of Indiana, and some others including myself—it was Medill McCormick who engineered the thing, or tried to—gathered very hastily in a low-ceilinged room underneath the Speaker’s platform. It was McCormick who said, “Boys, Harding is being nominated. I guess it is all over for that. We’ve got to find somebody for Vice President. Quick! Come on!”

There was a short discussion.

Some one of them said, “Harding is known as a pretty stout conservative. We would better put on the ticket for Vice President with him a fellow who has more of a reputation of being a liberal or progressive or whatever you choose to call it. How would Senator Lenroot of Wisconsin do?”

We all agreed to go back to our delegations and boom Lenroot for Vice President. That was the only evidence of a Senatorial cabal at which I was present. So they went back to their delegations. My colleague, Senator William M. Calder of New York, was there. He went back to our New York delegation and he seconded the nomination of Lenroot for Vice President.…

Whereupon, back in the center aisle a delegate from Oregon or Washington got up and called out, “Mr. Chairman, I nominate Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts!”

It was all over!

The reason they voted for Coolidge was that they had an underlying admiration for him. Coolidge had become famous by that time as a result of the Boston police strike and he had delivered himself of some very sensible, straight-thinking utterances. He was in the back of the minds of any number of delegates in that convention and when this chap said, “I nominate Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts,” nothing could stop it. It was spontaneous. It wasn’t organized and there were no bosses in it at all —in fact a few of the bosses tried to nominate Lenroot, who was a very good man, and failed completely. If there was ever a President and a Vice President nominated at a convention without the intervention of organized bosses it was those two men, Harding and Coolidge.

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