June 12, 2018

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 its 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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June 02, 2018

Reports of Mark Twain’s quip about his death are greatly misquoted...

Mark Twain, the report of my death
In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895.

He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.

While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.


According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:


      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

 
Another common variation of the line uses the words “…have been greatly exaggerated.” 


Sometimes the quip is given as “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
 
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.


It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.


The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28, asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.


White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.


The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal. It said, in part:

     Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London...
     The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
     “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
     The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.


In Chapter 197 of the biography, Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”


According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.


Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:


      “You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

 
Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.


However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.


Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:


       “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

 

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