This NOT Just In: President Harding Comes To Seattle
On July 27, 1923, President Warren G. Harding was on his way to Seattle. He was aboard a ship returning from Alaska, and thousands of people around the city were waiting to catch a glimpse of the commander in chief.
Harding: "Let the Internationalists dream and the Bolshevists destroy. In the spirit of the Republic, we proclaim Americanism and acclaim America."
This is a campaign speech recorded in a studio in 1920, the year Harding promised a "return to normalcy." It was right after World War I, and Americans wanted a president with a more domestic and more traditional focus.
But the world was speeding up. 1920 was the first presidential election night covered by radio. There are no recordings from the airwaves that November evening, but it may have sounded something like this re–creation made by Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in the 1940s.
KDKA Re–creation From "I Can Hear It Now:" "It is now apparent that the Republican ticket of Harding and Coolidge is running well ahead of Cox and Roosevelt. At the present time, Harding has collected more than 16 million votes against some 9 million for the Democrats."
Not too many people recall much about President Harding. If they do remember anything, it's usually Teapot Dome, a scandal that involved payoffs to government officials in exchange for sweetheart deals on public lands. By the time of his trip west in the summer of 1923, a tired and dispirited Harding was looking to re–energize his presidency. But it didn't exactly turn out that way.
Back on the Seattle waterfront on that warm July day, thousands of people were waiting for the president to arrive. But Harding's ship had collided with a Navy destroyer off Port Townsend. The president was many hours behind schedule.
Finally, just after 1:00 p.m., the presidential ship docked at Bell Street Pier and Harding got into a cream–colored open car for a whirlwind tour. First stop was Volunteer Park for dedication of a monument. Next was Woodland Park, where thousands of Boy Scouts had been waiting for hours. Then, onto the University of Washington.
Harding spoke at Husky Stadium to a crowd of more than 30,000. Again, there are no known recordings, but it may have sounded something like this earlier Harding speech.
Harding (1920 speech): "Let it be said to all of America that our plan of popular government contemplates such orderly changes as the crystalized intelligence of the majority of our people think best."
Harding was the first president to visit Alaska, and in his speech at Husky Stadium he predicted statehood for that remote territory. But something wasn't right. The 57–year–old president seemed to rush through his remarks and even stumble over some of his words.
Later that evening, after just six hours in Seattle, President Harding boarded a train at King Street Station and headed south for a visit to Portland. But as the train steamed through the darkness of Western Washington, it was clear that Harding was seriously ill. Portland was bypassed, and the entourage rolled south toward California.
Harding arrived in San Francisco and retired to a suite on the eighth floor of the Palace Hotel. All events were cancelled, and the president stayed in his room.
Music: Victor Opera Company's "Gems from The Mikado"
A few nights later, anyone listening to the radio in Seattle around 8:00 would have heard this recording from the Victor Opera Company: "Gems from The Mikado." In 1923, Seattle had just a handful of stations, and broadcasting only took place from 7:30 to 9:30 each night.
Radio wasn't yet a regular source for news. Everyone still read daily papers, and the "extras" printed for big stories like wars and sensational crimes. Radio was for music. So it came as a shock just after 8:00 p.m. that night when the music stopped.
"President Harding," said a now forgotten Seattle broadcaster, "is dead."
The radio station signed off immediately. The streets downtown filled with mourners. Harding's recent visit made his death hit a little harder than in most other places. It didn't take long for people to figure out that Harding's busiest, most public final day as president had taken place in Seattle.
Harding died late in the day when radio stations in the Pacific Time Zone were on the air and East Coast stations were silent, so it's likely that West Coast listeners were the first in American history to learn from broadcast media about the death of a president.
Warren G. Harding, the first man to be hailed by radio as president, was also the first to be mourned on the airwaves too.
I'm Feliks Banel, for This NOT Just In.
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