June 12, 2015

The origin of the proverbial political “smoke-filled room”

Although smoking is either banned or not tolerated in most meetings today, the idea of a meeting of power brokers making deals behind closed doors “in a smoke-filled room” is still a well-known political image and metaphor.

The now-idiomatic “smoke-filled room” was embedded in our language by an Associated Press article filed on June 12, 1920 by reporter Kirke L. Simpson.

That story dealt with the nomination of former Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party’s candidate in the 1920 Presidential election.

My grade school and high school history books didn’t delve into the backroom machinations leading to Harding’s nomination.

But like other fans of the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire, I learned a bit about the real life characters involved and the wheeling and dealing that went on from watching some of the show’s Season 1 episodes. 

Those episodes suggest that Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by actor Steve Buscemi) was instrumental in swinging the nomination to Harding.

While that may be one of a number of fictionalized plot elements in the series, Harding’s nomination was the result of some hard-nosed political deal-making.

In the days leading up to June 12, delegates to the Republican Convention in Chicago had reached an impasse.

Neither of the two leading candidates — former U.S. Army General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden — could gain a majority of delegate votes.

So, on the night of June 11, a small group of top Republican party officials held a private meeting in Suite 404 in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel.

Smoke from their cigars filled the room as they discussed the latest ideas on how to break the deadlock.

Sometime after midnight, they decided to push through the nomination of Harding as a compromise candidate who could win in the key state of Ohio and would be friendly to the Captains of Industry.

The AP story filed by Kirke Simpson that morning famously said:

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

Simpson is often credited with coining the phrase “smoke-filled room,” at least in it’s political sense.

Some sources say that he got the phrase from Harding’s campaign manager, Harry Daugherty (played by actor Christopher McDonald in Boardwalk Empire).

Daugherty allegedly predicted in remarks to reporters:

“The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some twelve or fifteen men, worn out and bleary-eyed for lack of sleep, will sit down about two o'clock in the morning, around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination.  When that time comes, Harding will be selected.”

Safire's Political Dictionary, written by the late, great political quote maven William Safire, notes that Daugherty denied saying this.

Either way, the Kirke Simpson’s news story usually gets credit for making “a smoke-filled room” a common political term.

Simpson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize two years later for his series of articles about the burial and tomb of “The Unknown Soldier.”

Harding went on to be elected President of the United States, though he died in office a few years later, after a series of scandals made him a frequent nominee for lists of the worst presidents in history.

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