- - Monday, July 18, 2016


If you think this year’s Republican National Convention is one for the record books in terms of surprises, speakers and serendipity, you should be informed about the Republican shindig in 1924. It was really different. It was the one that nominated Calvin Coolidge, who ascended to the White House on the death of President Warren Harding in August 1923.

The convention was also held in Cleveland, a city that neither major party had chosen up to that time. But it was Coolidge who deferred to Cleveland rather than the initial choice for San Francisco. The reason: Ohio was Harding’s home state, so choosing a city there would serve as a tribute to the 29th chief executive. The Cleveland Public Auditorium was unadorned by traditional flags and GOP bunting. But the austere arrangements were offset by the fact that the convention was high-tech, the first broadcast by radio by 15 stations from the East Coast to as far west as Kansas City. A running commentary would be provided by one Graham McNamee, who was lodged in a glass, soundproof booth near the convention stage. Amplification for the 15,000 spectators and delegates reached new peaks of refinement as a result of a dozen “horns” strategically placed from the ceiling.

The convention was the first for female delegates, who achieved the vote in 1920. Of the 1,109 total delegates, 120 were women, and Cleveland hotel owners went out of their way to ensure that accommodations for them were reasonable and satisfactory. And 34 special federal agents were assigned to the convention to make certain that Prohibition was enforced. Without a doubt, the confab was so low-key that it was suggested that the city’s churches open their doors to provide a little excitement.

No convention would have greater capacity for sending out the news: 700,000 words per day, according to 100 Western Union operators in the auditorium basement. Although photographs could be submitted by wire, their quality wasn’t as good as the “flashlight” originals, one of which was brought by airplane to New York City, dropped by parachute near the Statue of Liberty, and whisked by a motorboat to newspapermen waiting on shore.

Proceedings were as swift as the technology that surrounded the convention, taking only three days, the shortest since 1904. Of course, there were glitches. The preferred vice-presidential candidate, Illinois Gov. Frank O. Lowden, received a majority of votes on the second ballot, but he wasn’t interested in taking the second spot. A third ballot resulted in the selection of banker Charles G. Dawes.

The convention’s most unusual event was the nominating speech for Coolidge, the longest in convention history. The speech, given by Marion Leroy Burton, president of the University of Michigan, ran 51 minutes, although Coolidge was known for his taciturn nature. Yet, Burton was a rapid speaker. An ordinary orator might have needed a good hour and a quarter.

The speech was scarcely academic. It would leave grammarians red-faced. At one point, Burton said: “To you and I.” No matter. It was a forceful sales talk on behalf of the nation’s No. 1 political product. Divided into three parts, the nominating speech focused on related areas of Coolidge: “The Man,” “The American” and “The Human Being.”

Three choice examples:

“When we call [Coolidge] a conservative, we must distinguish between the various types. He represents the conservatism which is the strength of all civilization.”

“He uses the past for the future. He is no mere worshipper of the past as the past. It has meaning chiefly as a guide to the future.”

“His mind has time to work because his tongue permits it.”

The delegates loved Burton’s speech and were eager for more words of wisdom, according to contemporary accounts, although the demonstration that followed the longest nomination speech was one of the shortest: 13 minutes. But the delegates had a catchy slogan: “Keep Cool with Coolidge.”

The delegate votes for Coolidge were nearly unanimous; the only disappointment was the president’s reaction. Coolidge was eating lunch in the White House when Isaac Hoover, chief usher, informed him of the big news. Nodding without saying a word, Coolidge resumed his meal.

His only formal statement issued during the convention was a telegram to the vice-presidential nominee:

“It will be a great pleasure to be associated with you in the public service. Best wishes to you and Mrs. Dawes, in which Mrs. Coolidge joins. Calvin Coolidge.”

That was a total of 27 words — surely what Burton would call a “frugality of locution” nurtured by a “fecundity of ideas.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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