Radio Days at the White House
Ninety-six years ago today, a U.S. president welcomed a new technology into the White House -- one that would ultimately alter the very way Oval Office occupants communicate with their fellow Americans.
The president’s name was Warren G. Harding, and what he did on this day was, well, something that our current chief executive might call traitorous. You see, Harding had been an Ohio newspaper publisher before he went into politics and what he did on this day in 1922 was a boon to the competition. President Harding installed a radio in the White House.
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Warren G. Harding wasn’t a good fit at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His nostalgic remembrance of the Senate as “a very pleasant place” underscored the problem. The man wasn’t what you’d call a workaholic. There were other issues, too. When Harding’s presidency is remembered today it is for the Tea Pot Dome scandal, Harding’s fatal heart attack in his second year in office, his undermining of U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and for a rambling and pompous prose style epitomized by the president’s popularizing of a strange new word: “normalcy.”
But this is insufficient: Warren Harding was also a naturally hopeful man. In the opening lines of his inaugural address to a nation weary of war, he spoke of a “new hope,” an aspirational theme invoked by most successful 20th century presidents, as well as Barack Obama. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, Harding embraced the future.
That radio he had installed in the White House on February 8, 1922 was indicative of his fondness for new technology. By June of that year, Harding was the first president to have his voice broadcast by the new medium. This was a mile marker on a long trek that U.S. presidents have taken to increase their ability to address the citizens of our far-flung land.
Abraham Lincoln used the railroads and the telegraph to expand the reach of his voice. William Howard Taft recorded his speeches on phonograph records. FDR spoke to the nation live over broadcast “fireside chats,” a tradition revived by President Reagan half a century later. Reagan, like John F. Kennedy, relied on a natural grace in the front of the camera to generate mass appeal. Bill Clinton set up the first White House website; his successor, George W. Bush, complained when aides prevailed on him to curb his emailing habit.
The first president to install a telephone in the White House was Rutherford B. Hayes. It was the late 1870s, and Hayes's first call was to Alexander Graham Bell, the man who had invented the contraption. The president’s salutary words to Graham were, “Please speak more slowly.”
That is an understandable and common reaction to technology: To slow it down. But the very nature of technology is to speed things up, a lesson we are re-learning anew with a Twitter-age president who arises early and immediately starts tapping away on his hand-held gizmo. It was forever thus.