Creating the Coolidge image

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Calvin Coolidge’s rise in politics was remarkably straight and, at times, seemed almost miraculous. While some of this was due to being in the right place at the right time, being astute, reaching out across the aisle, and “doing the day’s work”, Coolidge also was fortunate in having the backing of men (and politics in those days was handled by men) who saw great promise in him and furthered his career.  One group of men might be described as Coolidge’s “Amherst network”. Best known among these men is Frank Stearns, who championed Coolidge and never tired of promoting him, while Dwight Morrow is another.

It was Morrow who first contacted another fellow Amherst graduate, advertising man Bruce Barton, to help “groom” their man Coolidge for the 1920 Republican nomination. When Barton first met Coolidge, he had only recently founded the advertising agency of Barton, Durstine, and Osborn that soon became one of the largest in the country (the agency lives on today as part of the giant Omnicom group). Much as Stearns and Morrow, Barton quickly saw the potential in Coolidge. As part of a small circle of informal advisers, he felt it would be the best strategy for Coolidge not to appear too ambitious, but rather keep focussing on his duties while his supporters worked behind the scenes for his nomination. It was Barton who drafted the first national magazine article on the Massachusetts governor (for Collier’s) in November of 1919. As Kerry Buckley states in the excellent article upon which much of this blog entry is based (“A President for the “Great Silent Majority”: Bruce Barton’s construction of Calvin Coolidge, The New England Quarterly, Dec. 2003),  it was Barton who conceived of the idea of presenting Coolidge as a unique personality with which Americans would easily identify, not in the sense of creating a persona that was at odds with the real person, but in the sense of underscoring those traits and attributes that created a unified, symbolic personality while de-emphasizing other aspects of Coolidge’s personality.

In words that pre-date the 1968 election campaign by almost 60 years, Barton wrote  “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority has no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: he lives like them, he works with them, and he understands.” Barton also prompted Coolidge (via Stearns) to reach out to the millions of newly enfranchised women, who were about to vote for the first time in a presidential election. The result was a full-page editorial “Message to Women” that appeared in the Woman’s Home Companion.  He assured Coolidge that his interest was more than professional. “It is a real satisfaction,” he confided, “to try to write where one can feel a real conviction.” Coolidge was grateful. “You were able to do so much more,” he wrote, “than I had any idea was possible.”

While the drive the secure Coolidge the Republican nomination fizzled (a deadlocked convention resulted in “smoke-filled room” dealing that handed the nomination to Sen. Warren G. Harding), it may reasonably be assumed that the assiduous public relations work by Barton and Stearns was instrumental in making the revolt against the similarly proposed vice-presidential nominee Lenroot possible. In an unprecedented rejection of senatorial management of the nomination process, the delegates nominated Coolidge instead. It certainly was no coincidence that the Oregon delegate who put Coolidge’s name up for nomination had previously received not one but three copies of Have Faith in Massachusetts.

After the Harding/Coolidge ticket won the presidency, Barton occasionally wrote speeches for the vice president. The, after the death of Harding, Barton became the principal architect of the image Americans had of their president. It was he who argued for the extensive use of radio as a medium to reach voters, a medium that was rapidly consigning old-style oratory and old-style campaigning to the dustbin of history. Barton enthused “we will build a wonderful Coolidge legend in the country.” At the same time he was not above using negative advertising: with the 1924 election turning into a three-way race between Coolidge, Democratic candidate John W. Davis, and Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette, he painted the scenario of the election being thrown into the House of Representatives, and to combat LaFollette, the red scare was effectively revived.

Barton remained an inofficial adviser to president Coolidge, continued to write articles about him even after his term in office had ended, and, fittingly, delivered a eulogy on national radio after the president’s death in 1933 that included the words

“I shall say something about him that I doubt you have ever heard any man say: I loved him. There was a very lovable side to Calvin Coolidge. He was unique.”

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