Smoke-filled room or insurrection? The 1920 GOP vice-presidential nomination

Irvine L. Lenroot, 1869 - 1949

Sometimes, reading a patent falsehood on the web or elsewhere will prompt the wish to set things straight with a blog post of one’s own. The other day I read somewhere that Calvin Coolidge was named the 1920 GOP vice-presidential nominee as the result of a cabal in a smoke-filled room. As we Coolidge fans and followers know, that is the opposite of what happened.

The 1920 Republican national convention began June 8, 1920, at the Chicago Coliseum. Balloting for the nomination of the presidential candidate began Friday, June 11. Going in, the leading candidates were Frank O. Lowden, the well-regarded, moderate, and wealthy governor of Illinois, and General Leonard Wood, a long-time friend and associate of the late Theodore Roosevelt – these two were deadlocked. The other leading contenders were the fiery progressive Senator Hiram Johnson of California, and the amiable and undistingished, yet eminently presidential-looking Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.

As ballot after ballot saw Harding rising, a recess was declared, giving Harding time to offer the vice-presidential slot to Johnson, who rejected it. Behind the scenes, several stop-Harding efforts came to naught, and Harding was nominated on the 10th ballot. The Wisconsin delegation had managed to antagonize the majority of delegates by consistently casting its 24 votes for favorite son and largely symbolic candidate Robert La Follette.

All that now remained was the selection of Harding’s running mate. Many of the by then tired and overheated delegates couldn’t have cared less. It was then that the smoke-filled room (actually publisher George Harvey’s room at the Blackstone Hotel) swung into action. A group of mostly senatorial party leaders considered, then eliminated the possible candidates one by one. The governors of Kentucky and Massachusetts, Edwin P. Morrow and Calvin Coolidge, were briefly discussed but put aside. Ideally, the party bigwigs were looking for awestern progressive to balance the eastern stalwart Harding. It was then that Irvine L. Lenroot was first suggested, a popular and well-regarded freshman Senator from Wisconsin, who was on good terms with that state’s senior Senator La Follette. Lenroot declined the first overture made to him – he knew that Senators were foar more powerful than Vice-Presidents.

When other candidates began to be proffered on the convention floor, the party elders huddled again. They still saw Lenroot as the ideal man. In selling the idea to Lenroot, party chairman Will Hays sweetened the pot, quoting arding as saying that under him, the Vice-Presidency would be more than just honorary, that the veep would help make policy and sit with the Cabinet. While Lenroot was still mulling this, Illinois Senator McCormick was already nominating him on the convention floor, with others hastily joining him with seconding speeches.

Among the somewhat depleted number of delegates still present, there was considerable unrest at this. As Senator Calder of New York was finishing his seconding speech with the words “…of Wisconsin” following Lenroot’s name, someone shouted “Not on your life!” and there were intermittent shouts of “Coolidge! Coolidge!” from among the delegates, all of whom had received, courtesy of the efforts of Frank Stearns and Dwight Morrow, material on Coolidge, including his collected speeches.

When a small man with a strong voice stood on a chair in the rear of the hall, the convention chairman recognized him, expecting another second for Lenroot. Amid the general turmoil, few actually heard all the words the man –Wallace McCamant of the Oregon delegation- uttered, but they did hear the name “Coolidge” and greeted it with a chorus of applause and cheers. Lenroot, who had discussed the matter with his wife, returned to find that there was no more occasion to reply to Hays’ offer, as the Coolidge stampede was by then in full force. Coolidge was indeed nominated from the convention floor by 674.5 to Lenroot’s 146.5 votes.

There are several possible reasons for this turn of events. Many delegates associated Lenroot with Wisconsin, whose delegates had been recalcitrant all through the convention and up to the point of refusing to make Harding’s nomination unanimous. Coolidge represented law and order, with his firm stand at the time of the Boston police strike still fresh in everyone’s memory (and the campaign literature on Coolidge in everyone’s pocket). McCamant, for one, disapproved of the leaders’ decision to nominate Lenroot and decided to put Coolidge in nomination. Mostly, the cause for the rebellion was resentment against dictation by powerful Senators; the delegates, who mainly had been supporters of Lowden, Wood, or Johnson, had already been dictated the top of the ticket, they would not accept “one more Senator on the presidential ticket.”

And, as is so often true, timing was of the essence. Had Lenroot acceded to the leaders’ earlier overture, there would have been time to get the word of his selection out – not as the choice of a clique, but as the preferred choice of the nominee. Later in his long life, Lenroot cheerfully said he had no regrets. He served with distinction in the Senate under Coolidge, supporting him on a number of contentious issues, such as opposition to the McNary-Haugen farm bill. In 1928, he accepted Coolidge’s offer of nomination to the Court of Patent and Customs Appeals, where he served until 1944.

One thought on “Smoke-filled room or insurrection? The 1920 GOP vice-presidential nomination

  1. Thanks for this!
    I had not seen a photo of Lenroot before. I always like to note that all rooms, in those days were “smoke-filled” – We forget that.

    In CC’s Autobiography, there is one exclamation point!

    It follows the name of W. Murray Crane on page 114. (There was the Lodge faction in Massachusetts and the Crane faction.) Elsewhere, it is suggested, that: Had Crane been in better health at Chicago, CC would have stood a better shot at the presidency. After CC was added to the ticket, the delegates paraded around the auditorium with banners and state names on high, singing: “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here” with the refrain: “All Except Wisconsin. All Except Wisconsin.”
    Your good post points to the reasons behind that improvised verse.

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