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Ninety years ago tomorrow, a president spoke before a San Diego audience of 50,000, the largest of his career, and nearly everyone in the crowd could make out his words about a crucial Senate vote.
That was a first.
Before Woodrow Wilson came to San Diego on Sept. 19, 1919, no president’s voice had ever been electronically amplified through loudspeakers. New technology changed everything as he stood at City Stadium in front of an audience that numbered almost half the population of the county.
The Democratic president gave an eloquent speech in support of American membership in the League of Nations, a precursor of the U.N. that Wilson hoped would bring world peace. Within weeks, however, Wilson’s own voice was stilled just when it was most needed, setting the stage for the worst conflict in history two decades later.
But in San Diego, at least, he was triumphant.
Wilson’s visit “went off without a hitch,” raved The San Diego Union, which said it “will always be remembered as one of the really great events in the city’s history.”
Indeed, Wilson and his wife, Edith, were grandly received by San Diego, a city of about 74,000. They were greeted with applause as they entered the U.S. Grant Hotel (founded by the son of another president), and Mrs. Wilson spent the speech holding a pink azalea flower that a young girl tossed to her as the presidential vehicle drove into Balboa Park on the Cabrillo Bridge.
But behind the scenes, there was grumbling. Wilson, who stood inside a glass box in the middle of City Stadium (later known as Balboa Stadium) to make his speech, wasn’t thrilled about the new-fangled “Magnavox” (“Great Voice”) public-address system, which had been invented just a few years earlier.
The microphone was attached to a horn above his head, wrote historian Gerald A. Shepherd, because it was thought “undignified” to ask the president to hold a microphone.
Even so, “he complained about it. He didn’t like it,” said John Milton Cooper, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of books about Wilson. “None of the orators (of the time) liked microphones because they weren’t used to them.”
Wilson, a stiff personality in the best of times, was no stranger to crankiness. A Union article noted that “Folks say — some folks say — that Woodrow Wilson is a human icicle,” the Union said.
But not that day and not at that speech, which was the best of his tour, Cooper said. “He really had his arguments together for the league and how there would be another world war if they (Congress) didn’t approve it.”
“The heart of humanity beats in this document!” declared the president while holding a copy of the League of Nations covenant. “It would be a death warrant to the children should league participation be rejected.”
“Wilson was a riveting speaker,” said historian and author H.W. Brands in an e-mail, “combining intellectual erudition with the passion of a revivalist preacher.”
Historians differ over whether Wilson’s speaking tour was a “fool’s errand,” or whether he really had a chance to push the Senate to support the league, Cooper said. Many senators balked because they wanted to keep the United States from being entangled in world affairs, but they “weren’t as immune to public pressure as they liked to pretend to be,” he said.
But then everything changed when Wilson’s health failed about four weeks after his San Diego visit. On Sept. 25, 1919, he collapsed while visiting Pueblo, Colo., during his speaking tour and suffered a stroke a week later, making him an invalid for the rest of his term. Some historians think his wife, who’s been called “the first female president,” essentially ran the White House after that.
“The whole thing goes to hell with that stroke,” Cooper said. “It removes him from negotiations and the psychological effects became devastating. He became obdurate, wouldn’t compromise and was out of touch with reality.”
Historians still debate whether World War II might have been averted if Wilson hadn’t ultimately lost the League of Nations battle. “America’s failure to join the League left the world largely at the mercy of the thugs who started the Second World War,” argues Brands.
But for one day in San Diego, his message was heard loud and clear.