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July 17, 1940 – Your typical sweltering July in Chicago, site of the 1940 Democratic Convention. Up until this day, a pretty cut-and-dried affair.
By the convention Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner were declared candidates, and Paul McNutt was a possibility. Roosevelt still did not want to declare openly for re-nomination, so his backers arranged a stunt at the convention. Roosevelt dictated a message on the phone to Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley, which Barkley read out to the convention during the first day’s proceedings. It concluded
“The President has never had, and has not today, any desire or purpose to continue in the office of President, to be a candidate for that office, or to be nominated by the convention for that office. He wishes in earnestness and sincerity to make it clear that all of the delegates in this convention are free to vote for any candidate.”
One biographer wrote that Barkley’s message “can scarcely be said to have conveyed the whole or literal truth”. When it ended, the convention sat in shocked silence for a moment. The silence was then broken by a voice thundering over the stadium loudspeakers: “We want Roosevelt! We want Roosevelt!” The voice was Thomas D. Garry, Superintendent of Chicago’s Department of Sanitation (the sewers department), a trusted henchman of Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly. Garry was stationed in a basement room with a microphone, waiting for that moment. Kelly had posted hundreds of Chicago city workers and precinct captains around the hall; other Democratic bosses had brought followers from their home territories. All of them joined Garry’s chant. Within a few seconds, hundreds of delegates joined in. Many poured into the aisles, carrying state delegation standards for impromptu demonstrations. Whenever the chant began to die down, state chairmen, who also had microphones connected to the speakers, added their own endorsements: “New Jersey wants Roosevelt! Arizona wants Roosevelt! Iowa wants Roosevelt!”
The effect of the “voice from the sewers” was overwhelming. The next day Roosevelt was nominated by an 86% majority.
Here is that five minute attempted bombshell, as delivered by Senator Barkley to a stunned roomful of delegates.