Harding's Speech Heard 'Round the World

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Good morning, it’s June 14. Today is Flag Day, which is fitting, because on this date in 1777 the Continental Congress officially adopted the Stars and Stripes. Naturally, presidents have been associated with the remembrance, starting with George Washington, who flew the banner in the field. Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed June 14 “Flag Day” in 1916; Harry Truman signed a law in 1949 making it official.

But the Flag Day ceremony that most impacted the modern presidency – it can actually be said to have ushered in the modern presidency – occurred on June 14, 1922 in Baltimore. On that day, in a speech unveiling a memorial to Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry, Warren Harding became the first U.S. president to have his voice broadcast over the radio.

Warren G. Harding is remembered today, on the rare occasions when he is remembered at all, as a failed president. His administration boasted few concrete accomplishments, was beset by scandal, and he died in office on a trip to San Francisco.

The publisher of an Ohio newspaper before he became a senator from the Buckeye State, Harding was fascinated with modern communications, however, even though his own speaking style was epitomized by flowery, yet largely empty, prose.

Here’s an example, taken from 1920, the year he was chosen as the Republican presidential nominee: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

His contemporaries were not sure what to make of language like this. Former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination that same year, derided Harding’s speeches as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”

But Warren Harding wasn’t an obtuse man. He spoke in generalities as a way of avoiding alienating factions within his own party. And he was quick to see the political implications of modern technology. Even before coming to Washington, Harding experimented by having his speeches recorded on a 78 rpm phonograph; and in February 1922, he had the first radio installed at the White House.

In preparation for his June 14, 1922 trip to Baltimore, the mayor’s office worried that Fort McHenry would not be able to accommodate the huge crowd wanting to hear the president. Frederick R. Huber, the Baltimorean heading the planning committee, proposed building a separate broadcasting station, but the estimated cost of $30,000 was too steep.

So they improvised: The president’s voice was to be carried by telephone to a broadcasting station in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C., and then relayed back to receiving stations in Baltimore.

News of this arrangement was heralded by the Baltimore Sun under the headline, “ENTIRE CITY TO HEAR ADDRESS BY HARDING.”

“President Harding’s voice,” the paper noted, was to be “carried by radio to every public square in Baltimore. In this way thousands who will be unable to gain admittance to Fort McHenry will be able to go to the square nearest their homes and hear the address as it is being made.”

The world would little note nor long remember what Warren Harding had to say that day in Baltimore, but it never forgot how his words were transmitted.

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