Even though smoking is not allowed or tolerated in most meetings nowadays, the idea of a secret meeting of power brokers in “a smoke-filled room” is still a well-known political metaphor.
It was launched into our language by an Associated Press article published in newspapers around the country on June 12, 1920.
The story was written by AP reporter Kirke L. Simpson.
It dealt with the nomination of former Ohio Governor Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party’s candidate for President of the United States in the 1920 election.
During the previous days, delegates to the Republican Convention in Chicago had reached an impasse. Neither of the two leading candidates — 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 what to do about the deadlock.
Sometime after midnight, they decided to push through the nomination of Warren Harding as a compromise candidate.
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, who allegedly predicted 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, Kirke Simpson’s article on June 12, 1920 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 articles about the burial 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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Further reading about famous (and infamous) political quotes…