A group of men in a smoke-filled room

It might not come as a surprise to learn that a phrase which has been around American politics for a century; a phrase which has come to symbolize secret, backroom political deals; has its origin here in Illinois.

This year millions of Americans went to the polls during the late winter and spring to choose their party’s Presidential nominees. Just as they did four years ago and every four years going back for as long as most of us can remember.

But it wasn’t always that way.

For most of the 19th century and into the 20th, nominees for the Presidency were chosen by party leaders in closed-door conferences, with their selection then presented to a party convention for what amounted to a rubber-stamp ratification. One hundred years ago a term was finally coined to describe this commonplace, but less-than-democratic selection process after Republican leaders gathered in a room choked with cigar smoke at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel to select their nominee.

The election of 1920 was shaping up to be different from any other in American history. The nation had just come out of the horror of World War I and the violence and terror of the period which came to be known as the Red Summer in 1919. That year had seen anarchist bombings, social upheaval and racist terrorism against African-Americans throughout the country, culminating in the deadly Chicago race riot in July and August in which at least 38 people were killed. All the while, the nation was on the verge of being leaderless.

President Woodrow Wilson had spent months in Paris at the Versailles Peace Conference helping draft the treaty which would officially end World War I and re-draw most of the map of the world. He had returned to face skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and when he was unable to win their support for ratification, he had taken to the rails, crisscrossing the country giving dozens of speeches to rally the people behind his cause. In the process, he had exhausted himself and suffered a stroke, which made him an invalid in the White House for most of his final 18 months in office. Some legends even suggest that the First Lady was effectively running the country, outside the Constitutional chain of command.

When the Republican convention convened at the Chicago Coliseum on June 8, 1920, one of the presumptive frontrunners was a native son: Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. The former Congressman turned first-term chief executive of the nation’s third-largest state had garnered national acclaim for structural reforms to state government which had been copied in other states across the nation and even in Congress.

Frank Lowden
But Lowden was far from the only candidate for the nomination. General Leonard Wood, who had achieved great fame in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the fighting in the Philippines was also a frontrunner, as was Senator Hiram Johnson of California. Other names were likely to be placed in nomination, such as Pennsylvania Governor William C. Sproul, fellow Keystone State Senator Philander Knox, his Senate colleagues Warren G. Harding of Ohio and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, as well as a handful of others. The delegates getting off the trains in Chicago found themselves looking at a hopeless muddle.

The convention faced the divisive issue of Wilson’s League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations, which had been conceived out of the failure of diplomacy to prevent the devastating war of the past decade. The party, like the country, was deeply divided over the League. Republican leaders feared another party split like the one they had experienced at the Chicago convention eight years earlier which saw Theodore Roosevelt’s supporters bolt the party, mount a third party bid and help deliver the Oval Office to Wilson. Consensus was going to have to be achieved somehow.

To claim the nomination, a candidate needed 471 delegate votes. No candidate was going to achieve that mark on the first ballot, which was a very frequent occurrence at conventions of that era. It had taken three rounds of voting for Republicans to select Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Wilson needed 46 ballots to claim the Democratic nomination in 1912.

On the first vote in 1920, Wood led the way with 287.5 votes, with Lowden not far behind at 211.5. After the fourth roll call vote, no nominee had emerged and delegates decided to break for the night.

The deadlock continued the next day. One faction of the party was staunchly opposed to Wood, while the other would not accept Lowden. Another four rounds of voting went by before the convention recessed once again. Now the backroom machinations began in earnest.

Throughout the second day of the convention, Lowden’s support had been slowly but steadily growing, and on the fifth ballot he pulled even with Wood, but was still well short of clinching the nomination. By the end of the night, Lowden was a few votes ahead of Wood, with no other candidates anywhere close. But gaining steadily on them had been Senator Harding, buoyed slightly by defections from the stalled frontrunners.

Months before the convention, Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, had described his long-shot candidate’s convention strategy with what would come to seem a prophetic prediction. He said it was his belief that the party would turn to Harding, “about eleven minutes after 2 o’clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table and some one of them will say, ‘who will we nominate?’ At that decisive time, the friends of Harding can suggest him and can afford to abide by the result.”

Daugherty had a reputation in Ohio as a well-connected, influence-peddling lobbyist. “Always he knew what wire to pull,” remembered Ohio statehouse journalist Mark Sullivan. “Always he kept a web of wires running from his office out to all sorts of men who occupied places of leverage; always he knew how to get results.”

Blackstone Hotel Chicago
He was a character tailor-made for the drama that was to about to unfold in a soon-to-be famous hotel suite in Chicago.

After the second day of the deadlock, a group of senators retired to a suite on the 13th floor of the Blackstone. They debated into the wee hours of the night, finally reaching the conclusion that neither Wood nor Lowden could get the support he needed to clinch the nomination and unify the party. Someone who had offended no one would have to be found. As had happened so often in the decades before, a major party would turn to a dark horse candidate to unify the disparate factions. But who?

“Basically the convention goes naturally to Harding because there’s nobody else,” said historian David Pietrusza.

Other considerations came into play in the discussions, the largest of which was the likelihood that the Democrats would select Ohio Governor James Cox as their nominee and Republicans did not want to concede the electoral votes of such an important state, thereby necessitating the selection of an Ohioan. Whatever the reason, the decision was made, and at 5 a.m. on Saturday June 12, 1920, Kirke Simpson of the Associated Press broke the news on the AP wire and in the process added a term to the American political lexicon that endures today.

“Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today as Republican candidate for President.”

The New York Times also referenced the inner sanctum’s air quality in its account, declaring the party platform as having been put together, “last night by a few men in a smoke-filled room.”

Whether the term was just an observation, or the loaded term which today has such negative connotations, is unclear. But it didn’t take long for “the smoke-filled room” to become the pejorative it is today. Cox used it on the campaign trail that fall to tie Harding to political bosses, but it did not do much good.

Harding ran a cautious, “front-porch” campaign, eschewing speaking appearances and only addressing delegations who came to his home to hear him. This was by design. Harding was such a non-entity that Pennsylvania boss Boies Penrose had advised the nominee’s campaign managers to not let him go out and give speeches. “If he goes out on tour somebody’s sure to ask him questions and Warren’s just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them.”

But after eight years of Wilson and a season of upheaval, the nation approved of Harding’s call for “A return to normalcy.” In an election with three of the nation’s next four Presidents on the ballot, Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge decisively beat the team of Cox and Franklin Roosevelt.

Warren G. Harding, 1920 
Harding went on to lead one of the most corrupt Presidential administrations in American history. It became known for a multitude of scandals which ensnared high-ranking members of his administration, including Daugherty, who he appointed Attorney General. Many did not come to light until after Harding’s sudden death in August 1923.

Harding’s scandal-plagued administration, the result of the intrigues in that hotel suite overlooking Michigan Avenue, did much to cement forever the shadiness of the term, “the smoke-filled room.”