O Say Can You Hear

Good morning. It’s June 14, 2019. On this date in 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national emblem. For the past century, U.S. presidents have sought to associate themselves closely with that badge of honor — and that date.

Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed June 14 to be “Flag Day” in 1916. In 1949, Harry Truman made it official. But the Flag Day ceremony that most impacted the modern presidency took place on this date in 1922, fittingly, in Baltimore.

Warren G. Harding was president on June 14, 1922, when a memorial to national anthem author Francis Scott Key was unveiled at Fort McHenry, in Baltimore Harbor. The president was invited to make remarks, and on that date, and in that place, he became the first U.S. president whose voice was broadcast over the radio.

His exact words were unmemorable, which isn’t the point, but it’s worth digressing momentarily for an observation about President Harding’s communication skills. The publisher of an Ohio newspaper before he became a U.S. senator from the Buckeye State, Harding was fascinated with modern communications. Paradoxically, his own speaking style was epitomized by language so flowery and over-the-top that it seemed to come from a previous era. Harding’s prose was also generally devoid of any real meaning. Here’s an example from 1920, the year he was chosen as the Republican Party’s 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 the experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Aside from displaying a fetish, if not a talent, for alliteration, what did it all mean? If you’re unsure, nobody at the time quite knew what to make of it either. (“Normalcy” was a term Harding didn’t invent, but did popularize. Some people made fun of the word, and still do. “Equipoise,” on the other hand, was doomed to remain in justifiable obscurity).

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, who sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination that year, derided Harding’s speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” But Warren Harding wasn’t stupid, and his rhetorical obtuseness was — as he might have put it — a deliberate device, a clever contrivance, sly stratagem. Mostly, though, he spoke in baroque generalities to avoid alienating the warring ideological factions within his own political party.

As president, he was also quick to grasp the politically advantageous implications of technological innovations. In February 1922, he had the first radio installed in the White House. This gave his advisers an idea: Prior to his planned trip to Fort McHenry, Baltimore’s mayor and other civic leaders worried that the crowd would be so large that most people in attendance would be unable to hear the president.

Frederick R. Huber, the Baltimorean heading up the planning committee, proposed building a separate broadcasting station. But the estimated cost, $30,000, was deemed too steep. So they improvised: The president’s voice was carried by telephone to a broadcasting station in the Anacostia district of Washington, D.C., and then relayed back to receiving stations in Baltimore.

The world would little note, nor long remember, what Warren Harding had to say in Charm City that day, but it never forgot that a president’s words could now be transmitted through the air.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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