26 July 2023
It was 100 years ago this week when President Warren G. Harding gave a major speech at what’s now Husky Stadium at the University of Washington on July 27, 1923. As it turned out, it was the last public address the 29th president would ever give.
FDR is considered the radio president for giving all those fireside chats during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the early days of World War II in the 1940s, but Warren Gamaliel Harding has the distinction of being the first president whose election was broadcast by radio – and the first president whose death was announced by radio, too.
In November 1920, a very early Westinghouse radio station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is believed to have been the first to broadcast the results of a presidential election. Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge made up the Republican ticket; the Democrats fielded James Cox and vice presidential hopeful Franklin Roosevelt. No recordings exist, but a few re-creations were made as early as the 1940s, which have confused and confounded historians for decades.
If President Harding (who carried every state but those in the Deep South in 1920) is remembered much these days, it’s for Teapot Dome, a scandal that involved payoffs to government officials in exchange for sweetheart deals on public lands – and maybe for the thousands of pages of steamy love letters he wrote to his mistress before becoming president.
In the summer of 1923, Harding took a trip west which he called the “Voyage of Understanding.”
The consensus is that Harding was tired and dispirited and looking to re-energize his presidency a little more than halfway through his four-year term. On July 27, 1923, the Commander-in-Chief arrived back in Seattle after visiting Alaska and Canada. He was several hours behind schedule because his ship had collided with a US Navy destroyer in the waters off of Port Townsend.
Harding arrived at Bell Street Pier just after 1:00 p.m. and was hustled into a cream-colored open car for a series of rapid-fire events, shortened and accelerated to make up for lost time.
The first stop was Volunteer Park to address Camp Fire Girls and dedicate a plaque at the base of the statue of William Seward. Next up was Woodland Park, where thousands of Boy Scouts had been waiting for hours at the Elks’ Club picnic to greet the president. Then, it was on to the University of Washington, where Harding gave a major address.
Harding had just become the first president to visit Alaska, and in his speech, he predicted statehood for the northern territory. Later, people who were at the stadium said he rushed through the speech, not waiting for crowd reactions, and even appeared to be stumbling over his words. It was clear the president was not feeling well.
However, from the stadium, Harding – who had owned a newspaper in Ohio – headed to downtown Seattle to give a talk to the Seattle Press Club, which had originally been scheduled to take place around midday. Then, around 7:00 p.m., after just six hours in town, the president boarded a train at King Street Station and headed south toward Oregon. He was not feeling well and was put to bed and watched over by a physician. As the train steamed through the night, a Portland visit was canceled, and the train kept rolling all day on July 28 through Oregon and then Northern California toward the Bay Area.
Harding arrived in San Francisco on the morning of July 29 and was taken to a suite on the eighth floor of the Palace Hotel. All of his events were canceled, and the president stayed in his room and in bed for the next few days.
When many Americans recall the death of a president being announced by a broadcaster, most people who remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 think of Walter Cronkite on television for CBS. But JFK wasn’t the first American president to have his death announced by national broadcast media; when FDR died of natural causes on April 12, 1945, John Daly read the bulletin on the radio for CBS. In both cases, Americans stayed tuned to hear more news about what had happened.
In 1923, 40 years before the death of JFK and 20 years before FDR died, broadcast media – that is, good old-fashioned radio – was in its infancy, especially as a source of news.
On the evening of August 2, President Harding was resting in his hotel room in San Francisco while his wife Florence read aloud to him. It was a few minutes before 8:00 p.m. Pacific Time when Harding died at age 57 from what’s believed to have been a heart attack. In short order, the news went out by telegraph across the country and around the world.
In the Midwest and on the East Coast, it was late at night, and radio stations in those regions had already gone off the air.
But on the West Coast in 1923, it was still what now might be called “prime time.” The handful of radio stations in Seattle in those days were only on the air for a few hours each evening, from roughly 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. According to a schedule published in the newspaper that day, one of the stations – KHQ – was playing a selection of records, including the Victor Opera Company’s “Gems from The Mikado,” around the time that word of Harding’s death would likely have reached Seattle.
At some point, the record was stopped, and an unnamed local announcer said simply, “President Harding is dead.” Then, the radio station immediately signed off. There was no protocol for handling such a sudden and somber occasion, and there was no way to go “wall-to-wall” with updates from San Francisco or anywhere – and this option likely wasn’t even considered.
According to newspaper accounts, this same basic scene was played out at radio stations all along the West Coast, from British Columbia to Southern California. Only KHJ in Los Angeles stayed on the air for a few hours after the announcement of President Harding’s death, playing a selection of appropriate hymns.
Because of time zone differences and because Harding’s death happened in California, it’s likely that West Coast radio listeners were the first in American history to learn from broadcast media about the death of a president.
A day after Harding’s death, one newspaper called August 2, 1923, “the night of greatest service radio has ever rendered” – though it’s unclear if that was for playing hymns or for having the wisdom to make the announcement and then getting off the air.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.