Like other news organizations, Science Service paid attention to national politics, especially if a candidate had some connection to the world of science and technology. In 1928, when U.S. Secretary of Commerce and mining engineer Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) received the Republican Presidential nomination, someone else spoke on his behalf at the party convention in June. Hoover then artfully courted press coverage of his campaign by creating a sense of anticipation for his formal acceptance speech, to be delivered at his alma mater, Stanford University. He also arranged to reach beyond the local crowds to a larger national audience – via the new medium of radio.
A group of sixteen candid photographs in the Science Service files show Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) arriving at the Stanford Bowl in Palo Alto, California, on August 11, 1928. The photographer is not explicitly identified in the records but Science Service astronomy editor James Stokley, a skilled shutterbug, was in California that August. Because Stokley had the appropriate press credentials, it is most likely that he took these photos, only one of which was later published by Science Service.
At first glance, the images appear to show a typical 1920s campaign rally. The honored guests arrive in a flag-decked car. The candidate mounts an elaborate stand to deliver his address, and speaks into a microphone. American politics were cascading into a new era, however. Hoover was keenly aware of the promise and power of radio technology. At the 1922 Radio Conference, he had observed that the world was “upon the threshold of a new means of widespread communication of intelligence,” one with potentially “profound importance” for “public education and public welfare.” And Hoover had used radio effectively when he headed the 1927 Mississippi River flood relief effort. He knew that, with live radio coverage, the acceptance speech could be heard by potential voters around the country as well as by those in the stadium.
Until the 1920s, and the development of radio broadcasting, campaign appearances had been constrained by a candidate’s physical endurance and available time. Eager to entice the political parties to use (and buy time on) the air, both CBS and NBC created elaborate national hookups for Hoover’s speech and treated it like news. Palo Alto would be “the center of the radio universe,” declared The New York Times, because wire transmission would relay the program to over 90 stations or network hubs. Telegraph lines facilitated short-term communication, and (an arrangement used for the recent Tunney-Heeney boxing match) short-wave broadcasts would wing the speech around the globe. Radio, the Times astutely predicted, “may well assume the leading role” in conveying political messages to every part of the country.
The Stanford ceremony began at 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time (nicely timed for early evening listeners on the East Coast). Over 75,000 supporters crowded into the athletic stadium, and millions of others tuned in from kitchens, living rooms, political halls, and bars.
Hoover’s opponent, Governor Al Smith of New York, also listened in that night, observed by local reporters in the room. The Democrat nominee’s announcement on August 21 featured a similar hook-up of over 100 stations. And within weeks, the two political parties were buying time from broadcasters.
The photographs from the Science Service morgue files preserve a candid glimpse of a moment of historical change – when bands and cheering crowds became part of the standard come-on for achieving time on the air.
Author's Note, 10/24/2016: In my post, I said that Science Service journalist James Stokley had "most likely" taken the photos of the Hoover rally at the Stanford football stadium. I recently came across correspondence confirming that conjecture. Stokley wrote Charles Edward Barns (1862-1937) on August 7, 1928, hoping to meet the astronomer and publisher while in California and mentioning that he planned to attend the Hoover rally. Barns had, in fact, just returned to his Morgan Hill ranch from San Francisco and replied that he "feared we are doomed not to meet on this trip, as it will be impossible for me to leave my work here for another month." Then, he added some observations and advice: "as for the Palo Alto event, I fear we should have a hard time to foregather with any satisfaction in that crowd of a quarter of a million souls, or thereabouts, predicted for that occasion. Besides, after thirty years in the tidal jam of New York, I have developed a horror of crowds; and even my confidence in Mr. Hoover as a drawing feature could not drag me out of my bucolic quietude of ranch life to take chances in a mob like that. I counsel you to buckle on your armor good and strong if you are going to attempt that event, and slip a bottle of arnica [a preparation athletes applied to bruises] into your flask-pocket, for it promises to be a flying-wedge crush. Still, you may enjoy it ... a very colorful crowd amid new and beautiful scenes, for all that part of the peninsula is a garden of loveliness." (C.E. Barns to James Stokley, August 9, 1928, RU7091, Box 92, Folder 1)
Herbert Hoover, The White House
The Hoover Story, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library