. . . and no media showed up to cover it? Would anyone notice – or care?
As it happens, I was touring the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, the day before 17,000 Iowa Republicans paid $30 apiece to cast a straw vote for their preferred candidate in next year’s presidential election.
In the museum — along with the sights and sounds of Birmingham’s past racial conflicts — was a vignette of the audacious speech that Warren Harding delivered when he visited the city — the first president to do so – in October, 1921.
Harding had traveled south to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alabama. His acceptance speech was expected to be the usual soporific pap that public figures deliver on such occasions. Instead he delivered the first civil rights address — denouncing racial discrimination in any form — given by any American president since the Civil War. Blacks in the segregated audience applauded; whites sat on their hands.
This took place, keep in mind, when the Ku Klux Klan was a political force not only in the South but across the nation. As president, Harding — chosen by Republican party bosses in the infamous “smoke-filled room” — also pushed for anti-lynching legislation and a shorter work week, controversial stands at the time.
Oh for the good old days-and-ways of choosing presidential nominees. Harding is widely considered one of our worst presidents, but as his Birmingham speech illustrates, even the most egregious products of smoke-filled rooms had something to be said for them. Whatever the closed-door flaws of the boss system, no smoke-filled room ever came up with a list of candidates that included (1) a former U. S. Senator who had lost his race for re-election by 17 points; (2) a former House Speaker with a penchant for Greek island cruises and Tiffany diamonds; and (3) a two-term Minnesota congressman who thinks the Battle of Lexington was fought in New Hampshire.
Sound Bite to Remember
Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him.
— Charles DeGaulle