By Jerry L. Wallace
A century ago, at noontime, Friday, December 8, 1922, President Warren G. Harding strolled to the rostrum of the House of Representatives (1). There he was greeted, amid enthusiastic applause from the floor and galleries, by Speaker Frederick H. Gillette and President pro Tempore of the Senate, Albert B. Cummins. The President was there to deliver his second Annual Message, which, since 1947, has been officially known as the State of the Union Address (2). In it, the President would lay out his concerns and legislative priorities. Seated before him were members of the 67th Congress, meeting in their unprecedented fourth and last session (December 4, 1922, to March 3, 1923). This occasion marked the sixth and final time he would appear before the 67th Congress (3).
The address he made that day, running 5,749 words, became a historic moment in presidential communications: (4) Thanks to broadcast radio, President Harding’s words would be broadcast throughout most of the country. For the first time, thousands of Americans were able to hear the Annual Address live as it came from the lips of their President. This was also the first time anyone had spoken by radio from the Capitol’s legislative chambers.
The President, who himself was a radio enthusiast, had spoken over radio twice before, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922, which marked his radio debut, and then at an event honoring Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry on June 14 (5). At both these events, he had acted in the President’s ceremonial role. This address at the Capitol, however, was made as part of his official presidential duties as required by the Constitution (Article II, Section 3), so it, too, was, in a sense, a first. What follows is the story of how this historic broadcast took place.
The acoustics of the Chamber of the House of Representative were notoriously bad, making it difficult for members to follow the proceedings. Officials, impressed by the new public address technology, decided to install such a system. Bell Laboratories, a unit of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, researched the project and did the work. Installation was done during the recess between the 2nd and 3rd Congressional Sessions in 1922, with “carbon button” microphones put in place for the members and 10 trumpet-shaped loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling, referred to by members as the “flying coffin.” The equipment for managing the system was housed in the Capitol basement (6).
For some time, there had been calls for using radio to broadcast proceedings of the Congress. Representative Vincent Brennan (R-MI) was prominent in this movement, offering the first, but unsuccessful, measure to permit radio coverage of the House and Senate (7). Thus, the amplification equipment for the House was designed to also serve as a portal for transmitting House floor activity to a radio station for broadcast (8). The radio technicians involved with Harding’s broadcast viewed it as “an experiment.” (9)
When President Harding spoke, a microphone was before him with others placed strategically about the Chamber. His words were conveyed for four miles over specially installed telephone lines to the Navy’s experimental radio station, NOF, at the Anacostia Naval Station. This station had the best transmitting equipment but its range during daylight was limited to around 200 miles. But, as previously arranged, its broadcast was picked up by other powerful stations and rebroadcast so that a good part of the country heard the President’s words as far West as the Rocky Mountains. Nonparticipating stations may have gone off the air to cut down on interference. As many as 10 stations, and likely several more, were involved in broadcasting the address (10). The Houston Post, grasping broadcast radio’s importance, wrote: “President Warren G. Harding was ‘just around the corner’ from Houston for an hour Friday while delivering his annual message….The event marks a new era in American history.” (11)
There was, unfortunately, a problem with the broadcast that likely reduced its listenership. While it had been announced that the President’s speech would be broadcast, the exact day of the broadcast was in doubt up to 10 p.m., Thursday evening, when the President’s address was finally sent off to the Public Printer (12). The broadcast would take place the next day at noon. This meant there was little or no advanced notice to the public. That the address was given at noontime, rather than in the evening, also limited audience size (13).
Another factor added to the confusion. Traditionally, with only one exception in 1855, the Annual Message was transmitted by courier for reading by the House Clerk or given in person by the President on the second day of the new session of the Congress. That would have been on Tuesday, December 4, 1922. But on that date, President Harding was still busy drafting his address, which involved conferring with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. This process was complicated by the fact that the November midterm election had raised new concerns and issues to be dealt with (14). This break with tradition received considerable newspaper attention.
Also, during this period, the President had to deal with other matters of state. For instance, on December 4, he submitted to Congress the first Federal budget produced under the new Budget and Accounting Act, and he also entertained delegates to a Central American conference. On December 6 and 7, he met with former French Prime Minister George Clemenceau.
President Harding’s Annual Message, which took around an hour to deliver, was well received by members of Congress and the public (15). The First Lady, Florence Kling Harding, who, recovering from a long illness, listened to the broadcast (her radio receiver was the same as used by the U.S. Marine Corps) in her sitting room. Upon the President’s return to the White House, he found her waiting for him in his study to discuss his message (16).
David Lawrence, a major syndicated journalist of the day, stated that the President had given “a comprehensive account of ‘the state of the Union.’ ” The recommendations the President offered did not come as a surprise but “his words formally [put them] on the record.” (17) Among the key matters discussed was relief for the farmer, a truly pressing problem, along with transportation issues, labor dispute resolution, and Prohibition enforcement. He also urged the submission to the States of constitutional amendments abolishing child labor and ending tax exempt securities. As a more unusual item, he recommended the approval of a survey of a plan for the drafting of all the nation’s resources, human and material, if war should come again. He had previously called for this in his inaugural address. This measure was a response to the war profiteering during the Great War about which there was much popular anger. For a full text of the President’s address, click here.
At the opening of his address, President Harding had lamented that “the readjustment of the social and economic order is not more than barely begun.” But the legislation passed by the 67th Congress had put in place a normalcy program that would soon return the nation to a peacetime basis, the primary objective of his presidency, and laid the foundation for the New Era in which radio would play a key role. (18)
One last word: For years, during the broadcast of the President’s State of the Union Address, your author has listened to media commentators state that the first broadcast of this event was made in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge. I trust that this essay shall help to correct this error, which, alas, has become embedded in our history. (19)
About the Author
Jerry L. Wallace is a scholar of the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and has been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972. Formerly, he was an historian and archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. He also is a member of the Friends of WG Harding and researches the Harding Administration, as well. He resides in Oxford, Kansas.
1. The central part of this paper—focusing on details surrounding the broadcasting of the President’s speech—is based primarily on information from one primary source: S. R. Winters’ informative article, “Broadcasting the Presidential Message to Congress.” It appeared in the April 1923 issue of Commercial America on pages 27, 29. This article is available over the Internet at: https://earlyradiohistory.us/1923mes.htm. (What appears to be an earlier, briefer version of this article, entitled the “President’s Voice Wafted Over U.S.,” appeared in the The Evening Star [Washington, DC] on December 8, 1922, on the front page.)….Another important source of useful background information on the Annual Message itself and about radio’s presence in the Congress is found on various pages of the House of Representatives website: https://history.house.gov/Home/ . Also used were notes, dating from 2010, based on a now defunct House website. These resources were drawn upon extensively in preparing this paper.
2. Harding’s first Annual Message had been delivered, without radio, on December 6, 1921. According to historian Robert K. Murray, this address laid out the framework for his normalcy program and is considered to be one of his best speeches (See Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy [New York: W. W. Norton, 1973], p. 46)….Presidents
George Washington and John Adams both delivered their Annual Messages in-person. But from President Jefferson through President Taft, the Annual Messages were sent by messenger to the Congress, where they were read by the Clerk of the House. President Woodrow Wilson revived in-person delivery of the Annual Message in December of 1913. Harding followed Wilson’s lead….Until 1934, the Annual Message was delivered every December. Since then, it has been delivered every January or February.
3. Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 92.
4. In the 19 th Century, Annual Messages were much longer and didactic. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland’s messages never came under 12,000 words and on two occasions both exceeded 30,000 words. These messages dealt mostly with what had been done. President Wilson, who resumed in-person delivery of the Annual Message, focused on the current situation and what legislation was needed to handle the nation’s problems, and President Harding would do the same. (See the Kansas City Kansans, Dec.12, 1922, p. 4.)
6. The amplification system was removed from the House in 1924 due to members complaints. It would be several years before a satisfactory system would be in put in place.
8. Only a few days after President Harding delivered his Annual Message, there was a broadcast, again over NOF, of a debate on the House floor regarding a Constitutional amendment to eliminate tax-exempt securities. This took place on December 19, 1922. It would be 50 years, however, before regular live broadcasts of House proceedings took place.
9. “May Be Broadcast,” Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer, Dec. 1, 1922, p. 4.
10. Among the key stations broadcasting the President’s address were: KDKA (Pittsburgh), WEAF (New York City), WJZ (Newark), WMAQ (Chicago), WWJ (Detroit), WDAF (Kansas City), and WHAS (Louisville). Most of these stations were Class B Stations broadcasting on 400 meters; that is, they were several steps above the average station of that day. See “Broadcasting Station Directory,” Wireless Age (January 1923), pp. 44-45….By 1922, three million homes had radio receivers. As Secretary Herbert Hoover, who oversaw radio, observed that radio had moved on “from the field of adventure to that of a public utility.” See Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), p.410.
11. “Is Heard By Radio Fans,” The Huston Post, Dec. 9, 1922, p. 1.
12. “Harding to Read Message Today At Joint Session,” The Washington Herald, Dec. 8, 1922, p. 1
13. The first Annual Message to be delivered in the evening was on January 3, 1936. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to do so was based on a desire to reach the largest possible radio audience. This was the second time a Joint Session of Congress had gathered to hear an evening presidential address, the first being on an April night in 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of War against Germany.
14. The Republican Party Congressional candidates had taken a shellacking in the November 7, 1922, election. The Party retained control of both Houses but with significantly reduced majorities: from 165 to 22 in the House and from 15 to 6 in the Senate. The new 68 th Congress would pose more problem for President Harding, especially with the rise of the Farm Bloc.
15. See the approving front page cartoon in The Evening Star (Washington, DC), Dec. 9, 1922. The farmer and the laborer like what Harding had to say.
16. The Wilkes-Barre (PA) Times Leader, Dec. 8, 1922, p. 1; and “President’s Voice Wafted Over U.S.,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), Dec. 8, 1922, p. 1.
17. David Lawrence, “President Covers All Major Issues,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), Dec. 8, 1922, p. 1.
18. Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), 94.
19. I first learned of the broadcast of Harding’s 1922 Annual Message from the Clerk of the House’s website over a decade ago. The information was buried away in a footnote dealing with Congressional Joint Sessions. In today’s House website, the information on the Harding broadcast is easier to find, under a chronological listing of events,
at: https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/Electronic-Technology/Radio/ .