A week before the 1920 Republican convention, an article suggested Pennsylvania Sen. Boies Penrose could decide the party’s presidential nominee. As it turns out, he kind of did.
Heretofore the Old Guard has had more than one man capable of playing this part behind the scenes, with the loyalty of the ingrained partisan who in an hour of crisis will set aside personal fortunes and personal choice for the sake of harmony. In the last Republican convention there were two leaders of this kind — Murray Crane of Massachusetts and Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania. With the announced retirement of Mr. Crane as the National Committeeman from the Bay State, the authoritative organization leadership of the Old Guard, formerly divided among several, is concentrated in the hands of Senator Penrose.
Here’s what ultimately happened, according to the book Selling the President, 1920: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding by John A. Morello.
There may not have been a “smoke-filled” hotel room in Harding’s journey to the presidency, but there was a hotel room… It belonged to Boies Penrose, the senior senator from Pennsylvania, who in the summer of 1919 took it upon himself to find a presidential candidate. He was looking for someone with whom conservative Republican senators could work, and most likely do their bidding.
He was also worried about Leonard Wood. Republican Progressives were gravitating toward Wood in the wake of Theodore Roosevelt’s death. They seemed energized, and that spelled trouble for Old Guard Republicans such as Penrose. Penrose eventually settled on Harding as someone who could stand up to Wood, as well as go along with party elders.
Penrose’s influence ultimately helped Harding secure both the nomination and the presidency.
To him, Harding looked like presidential material and would be a safe bet for the Republican Party in 1920. Harding wasn’t a boat rocker; Penrose felt confident Harding would listen to him and other leaders and do what he was asked. That may be one key in trying to unlock the mystery of how Warren Harding, possessing some latent presidential ambitions but riddled with doubt about his chances, managed to become the Republican nominee for president.
As the nominee Harding could do what neither Lowden, Wood, or Johnson could — that is, parlay his apparent ambivalence on issues such as the League of Nations into something that would hold together all wings of the Republican Party until November. He truly seemed to be the essence of conciliation and compromise.
This is a similar strategy to the one Democrats are currently taking by nominating Joe Biden for president. Whether it will result in the same White House occupancy as Harding earned, we’ll have to wait until November to find out.
Penrose as Potential President Maker in Chicago: Pennsylvania Senator’s Leadership of the Old Guard, His Solid Backing in His Own State and His Skill as Arch-Politician, May Give Him Deciding Voice in Spite of Ill-Health
Published: Sunday, May 30, 1920
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