Peering into 'smoke-filled rooms,' from 1920 to today

The Baltimore Sun

Talking heads and other journalists have been using the phrase "smoke-filled room" a lot recently, now that it is possible the Democratic National Convention may be decided not by primary or caucus voters but by the so-called superdelegates.

The phrase "smoke-filled room" appears to date from the Republicans' selection of their presidential nominee in Chicago in 1920. There were four candidates, none of them outstanding. After nine roll calls, no one had been nominated. Then the party bosses got together in a room full of cigar smoke in the Blackstone Hotel and agreed on Ohio Sen. Warren G. Harding as the nominee.

If the Democrats do settle on a nominee that way, and if the winner ends up with fewer primary and caucus votes than the other person seeking the nomination, the loser might be tempted to sue. But he or she shouldn't.

Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York judgeship seekers can be selected by party conventions no matter how unfair their procedures may seem to losing candidates. "Party conventions, with their attendant 'smoke-filled rooms' and domination by party leaders, have long been an accepted manner of selecting party candidates," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court.

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I can't say I was around for the nomination of Mr. Harding, but I was once in a smoke-filled room in the Blackstone during a convention.

In 1968, I was an editorial writer for The Sun. The paper had set up its coverage of the campaigns and had not planned to have a full-time reporter with each vice presidential candidate. But when the Republicans chose Maryland's Gov. Spiro Agnew, the reporter who covered him in Annapolis, Gene Oishi, was assigned to stick with him in his campaigning.

To be fair, the paper decided to assign a reporter to the Democratic candidate. But it had already stripped its Washington bureau for the campaigns. The managing editor asked the editorial page editor if he could lend him me; I had been a Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Constitution before joining The Sun. I was sent to Chicago with the paper's contingent so I could start getting to know the vice presidential nominee and his staff immediately after he was chosen.

Before that happened, I was sent to sit with Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who was a candidate for president (and a potential vice presidential nominee), in his suite in the Blackstone. It was directly across the street from the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where party headquarters were located and many journalists were registered.

The smoke in the Blackstone that night was not from cigar-smoking party bosses. Anti-Vietnam War groups and other advocates who had come to Chicago to protest the Democrats' policies marched on the Conrad Hilton. The police sprayed them with tear gas, which wafted into the open windows of Mr. McGovern's suite.

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The 1920 bosses picked well in one sense. Mr. Harding won the election in a landslide, 404 to 127 electoral votes. But in a 1996 article in Political Science Quarterly, he was ranked by academics and journalists as the worst president ever.

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The Supreme Court's decision in the recent New York judges case was unanimous - and reluctant for Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote that constitutionality and wise policy are not the same thing. "I recall my esteemed former colleague, Thurgood Marshall, remarking on numerous occasions, 'The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.'"

And the court probably would say the same about presidential conventions.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer and a biographer of Spiro Agnew and the 1968 Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Edmund Muskie. His e-mail is theolippman@aol.com.

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