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Benjamin Harrison and National Radio Day

August is nearly done, and so is summer in the Great Lakes. Still hot, still sticky, air conditioner still grinding away–thankfully. But I replaced the furnace this year, so at least I know that blower will run all summer–and is on warranty.

On 20 August in the year 2 (we think), there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter visible in the morning sky on Earth. This happens every three years and change, but this one was so close that it may have been visible in daylight and is one scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. On 20 August 1794, near what is now known as Maumee, Ohio, the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the Northwest War between the United States and the loosely-joined Native American tribes in the Western Confederacy and helped to open up the Ohio River country for American settlement.  The battle was fought by a purpose-built 2,000-man American force led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a famous Revolutionary War commander, and a similarly-sized Native American force that included a company of British regulars. Also on this day in 1914, Britain, France and Germany started the bloodletting in France in what would come to be called the Battle of the Frontiers. Simultaneously, the Russians and Germans had at each other at Gumbinnen, over in Prussia. The supreme irony here is that, on 20 August 1940, France would surrender to Germany. Today, for reasons surpassing understanding, is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. But today we’re going to talk about an obscure but essential president, and about radios.

These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Benjamin Harrison, born 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, is frequently said to have been something of a cipher. He was the grandson of the president with the shortest tenure, William Henry Harrison (31 days); a Civil War general of not great repute but enormous competence; and the president best known as the one between Grover Cleveland’s two administrations. These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

Ben Harrison only held two elected offices in his life: a one-term senator from Indiana (1881-1887) and a one-term president (1889-1893). A more-than-competent attorney, Harrison always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and even though his friends in high office were few, US Grant was among them. He was a gifted orator, a better-than-average legal writer, a savvy investor who didn’t lose money in any of the various postwar panics, and a reliable campaign friend to have in Indiana. Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many jobs like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison wasn’t the first to be elected without winning the popular vote, but his election in 1888 may have been regarded as the most suspicious until 2016. The Electoral College vote wasn’t even close–233 to 168 in his favor. Then, as now, the losing Democrats wrote editorial after editorial arguing that the Electoral College should be disposed of. But Harrison ignored his party when selecting his cabinet, frustrating Republican bosses across the country by avoiding patronage. And patronage was at the heart of the civil service reform that was popular among politicians at that time, with a merit system being described and argued. The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many positions like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House, was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison was in the White House when the last battle of the Long War between the Europeans and their African and Asian allies and the Native Americans broke the revivalist Ghost Dance movement among the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890. He didn’t have anything directly to do with it, but, like George HW Bush was in the scene when the Cold War ended, Harrison saw the end of the most protracted American war. But Harrison saw more states enter the Union than any other president–six–and his face appears on more stamps than any other Chief Executive–five. Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House (though he was too frightened of electrocution to turn them off), was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.

The election of 1892 was a low-key affair in no little measure because Harrison’s wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis (she passed two weeks before the election). Grover Cleveland won both the popular and the electoral vote handily, reentering the White House in March 1893. Ben Harrison went home to Indiana, remarried in 1896 (at 62, to a 37-year-old widow), and fathered another child in 1897. Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.


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Something we can all identify with

Now, National Radio Day is today, 20 August. Once again, who first decided this is a mystery for the ages, though one theory is that 8MK, now WWJ in Detroit, first broadcast in the clear on 20 August 1920, and someone, some time decided to commemorate that day. The day has been observed regularly since the early 1990s, mostly as a promotional gimmick I would imagine.

The pretty young ladies on the beach in the lead picture, struggling to hold that (probably empty) boom box over their head, are posing for the camera. I do not know of anyone who gets that excited over commercial radio in the 21st century except maybe the broadcasters. Perhaps that’s the reason why there’s a website supporting National Radio Day that lists stations across the US that support National Radio Day in some way or another.

It’s been a long time since I listened to broadcast radio in any form, though I do get satellite radio in my car from time to time. Like most music-only consumers, I prefer commercial-free satellite radio or streaming these days. The babbling DJs, the shouting pundits I can do without.

Still, commercial broadcast radio has had an outstanding, salutary role in American society and the world. Most Americans first heard of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. Many adults–especially those over 40–courted their current significant others to the sound of the radio in the car or the park or the basement. So you don’t have to listen to appreciate radio anymore, just know and recognize what a role it has played in our lives for nearly a century.

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