How did Warren Harding become the Republican presidential nominee in 1920?

With his genial disposition, lack of political drive, and tastes for wine, women, and poker, Warren Gamaliel Harding was not only a startling choice in 1920 but one of the least qualified candidates ever nominated by the Republican or Democratic party.

But the young politician from small town America, Blooming Grove, Ohio, had good looks, a pleasing voice, and a lot of charm. He did not antagonize. He played a game of compromise, made few enemies, and let his opinions drift and change with the tides of public opinion. He supported women’s suffrage, although he didn’t believe in it. He opposed excess-profits taxes and supported high tariffs to stay in the good graces of the Old Guard.

Although not unduly swept up in the Red Scare that racked the country, he was suspicious of labor unions, and in the spirit of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, he supported restricted immigration and thought anarchists should be shot.

Originally, Harding played his unobstrusive political game not to become President, but because he liked being a senator. Although his attendance was pitiful, he missed 43 percent of the roll calls from 1915 to 1919, he enjoyed the prestige, entertained weekly in his Washington home, and one way or another made friends with influential people. The presidency was, in fact, so far beyond the scope of his desires that when in December 1919 he announced he would run, he commented to his friend F. E. Scobey: “The only thing I worry about is that I might be nominated and elected. That’s an awful thing to contemplate.”

The overriding mood of the Republican convention that began in Chicago on June 8, 1920, during a stultifying heat wave was confusion. And this proved fertile ground for a legend to arise and persist for years to come, a legend of boss control, financial manipulation, and a “Senate cabal” plotting through the night of June 11 in a “smoke filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel to force the Harding nomination.

For the first day of balloting, June 11, had seen a deadlock between the two top contenders, General Leonard Wood, standing for nationalism and militarism, and Governor Frank O. Lowden of Illinois: in the fourth ballot, Wood had 314 1/2, Lowden 289, Harding a meager 61 1/2. The tremendous turnabout the following day could only be explained as the work of a senatorial clique that decided to make Harding its puppet, or so wrote George Harvey, publisher of Harvey’s Weekly, an editor and publicity maker who was on the scene, sharing the legendary suite of Republican National Committee Chairman Will Hays at the Blackstone. Harvey maintained that Harding was called to the room at 2 A.M. and asked if there was any reason that he should not accept the nomination. When Harding replied there wasn’t, the “boys,” eager for a president they could control, proceeded to get him the requisite votes.

It’s a catchy story, but far from the truth. If not the bosses, who was behind Harding’s precipitous rise? For years there were others, friends and opportunists alike, who worked behind the scenes to assure Harding’s victory, first in Ohio, then in Chicago.

High on this list, if not at the top, was Harry Micajah Daugherty, a shrewdly aggressive lawyer, keen political strategist, and influential Republican. The two men met on the way to a privy in the backyard of a small Ohio hotel around the turn of the century. Daugherty later claimed to have thought then and there, “What a President he’d make!” When the lawyer’s own political career was cut short in 1916 and when Teddy Roosevelt, a likely Republican candidate, died in 1919, Daugherty decided to make a president of Harding, both for himself and for the regular faction of the Republican party. “I found him,” boasted Daugherty, “sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water.”

Other early supporters were F. E. Scobey, former Clerk of the Ohio Senate, Charles Hard, Secretary of Ohio’s pro-Harding Republican State Advisory Committee and owner of the Portsmouth Daily Blade, and George B. Christian, Jr., Harding’s private secretary. They tackled the first major problem: getting Harding to run. Initially opposed to the idea, Harding began to entertain it by the fall of 1919, although his wife, Florence, thought it a terrible mistake and fiercely fought off the Senator’s persistent friends. Then in October 1919, pressure in the political arena within Ohio precipitated Harding’s decision. Threat of a coalition between the Cincinnati and progressive factions of the Republican party and increased support for General Wood led anti-progressives, such as Harding, to fear for their political survival in Ohio itself. Feeling he had no choice, the Senator announced his decision to run for President. The campaign was on.

Daugherty ran himself ragged with letters and phone calls.

Harding corresponded with newspapermen and his influential friends. In Boston he delivered his famous “Back to Normalcy” speech calling for “tranquillity at home,” “thoughtful labor,” “sober capital,” and “wholesome common sense.” “Gamaliel represents capitalism, openly and unashamed,” wrote H. L. Mencken. “He is a frank reactionary. Well, if we are to have reaction, why not hand over the conduct of the state to the honest reactionary?”

Harding and his supporters scraped together their pennies for his modest campaign, relying entirely on contributions. Wood, on the other hand, had millions at his disposal and was not shy about using them. His outlay of cash eventually aroused such bitterness that a Committee on Privileges and Elections (later called the Kenyon Committee after its chairman, Senator William S. Kenyon) was established to investigate. Its findings were a boon to Harding, who, with the lowest campaign expenses (only $113,109),appeared clean. Wood, having spent a staggering $1,773,303, was criticized for trying to buy his way in, and the Lowden contingent was charged with bribing the delegates. These findings would prove significant on that fateful Saturday, June 12, at the convention.

To the end, Harding maintained a low profile. By so doing he managed to obtain considerable hidden support—that is, where he did not show up as the first choice, he figured strongly for the second or third. When the convention opened, over 40 minutes of cheers and stomping followed the presentations of Wood and Lowden. Harding got only ten minutes’ worth, but Frank Willis, who nominated him, left an impression of friendliness and good humor, a welcome relief to the heated and confused convention.

Although it was not a secret meeting, there was activity in Hays’s suite at the Blackstone that night. Disorganized and indecisive senators streamed in and out between 8 P.M. and 2 A.M., wondering what was to be done. In addition to the Wood-Lowden deadlock, problems could be found with all the other candidates (who included Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Hiram Johnson, and Will Hays himself); they were too young, or too progressive, or too bland, and so on. Harding loomed up as a compromise. The following morning, pamphleteer George Harvey and Senators Reed Smoot and Charles Curtis apparently commented to the press that Harding’s selection seemed likely. Thus the public would hear of a “Senate cabal” and its decision. But on the first ballot Saturday morning, 13 of the 16 senatorial delegates at the convention still voted against him.

With each ensuing ballot, though, Harding gained ground. In many instances, the second-choice support began to show itself, and the staunch loyalty of John B. Galvin, one of the Big Four Ohio delegates, was a boost in Harding’s favor.

During a midday recess Wood and Lowden rode through the Chicago streets in a taxi, each trying frantically to get the other to step down and take the vice-presidential nomination, but without success. By the afternoon session, many of the baffled delegates were ready for a compromise, a safe bet, a winning smile. Connecticut voted overwhelmingly for Harding, followed by Kansas and a decisive state, Kentucky. Pandemonium erupted and other states turned in favor of Harding. He was well ahead in the ninth ballot and tumult sufficed for ratification on the tenth. “Rather than boss control,” writes Harding’s biographer Robert K. Murray, “no control was the final key to Harding’s nomination success.”

What did the nominee himself have to say about it? “We drew to a pair of deuces,” he remarked, “and filled.”