Taking the reins – Coolidge in 1923

William E. Borah, the "Lion of Idaho"

When Calvin Coolidge inherited the presidency following the death of Warren G. Harding in August 1923, his position in the Republican party was at first tenuous. He neither enjoyed the trust or backing of the still dominant Old Guard – his record as governor of Massachusetts had been vaguely progressive, and the events surrounding his nomination for the vice presidency had constituted a revolt of sorts against Old Guard forces. At the same time, he did not control the rebellious progressive wing of the party, whose leading lights such as California’s Hiram Johnson made clear he would contest Coolidge’s nomination in 1924, and Robert La Follette was mulling the formation of a third party.

Coolidge overcame the difficult situation in a most astute manner by straddling the fence, making overtures to both camps. At first, he began courting elements of the party’s liberal wing. His opening gambit was to win over the powerful Idaho Senator William E. Borah. Borah liked Coolidge, seeing in him a closet progressive who needed to be emboldened to show his true colors. Borah and his associate Raymond Robins frequently met with Coolidge in the autumn of 1923 and presented a laundry list of progressive causes. Coolidge made no definite promises but managed to seem amenable to their domestic and foreign policy agendas. But when he included a conciliatory message towards Soviet Russia, the furor this caused among conservatives made him cave in quickly, thereby angering the liberal wing who had been pushing for a gesture of recognition.

The liberals’ prospects began to brighten again when the investigations of the oil scandals completely uprooted the political scene. The scandals damaged Republican prestige, but particularly that of the Old Guard. If the president was willing to move decisively against corruption, severed his reliance on the Old Guard, and swung his support behind programs Borah advocated, Borah would offer his full support at the convention and in the campaign. Burned by the Russia recognition question, he wanted proof that Coolidge would not run for cover at the first sign of enemy flak, and his asking price was the immediate resignation of embattled Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

Coolidge had to tread carefully. Even in its weakened state, the Old Guard was still vastly more important to him than any support Borah could offer. He resorted to a policy of procrastination and equivocation, repeatedly reassuring Borah that Daugherty would be eased out as soon as humanly possible. Stringing Borah along in this manner worked for a while, and as it turned out, the investigation that led to Daugherty’s ouster was so incriminating that his departure was a matter of course.

At the same time, Old Guard efforts to smear and discredit reform elements within the party as “political blackguards and scandalmongers” backfired, as not only Democrats, but many Republicans found this sort of slander unbecoming. This enabled Coolidge to purge the ranks of Old Guard stalwarts, among them the Chairman of the Republican Party, John T. Adams, whom he replaced with William M. Butler. Former president William Howard Taft noted that Coolidge relegated the Old Guard “to the back benches.” He did not, however, replace them with progressives, but with men recruited directly from the world of business. Thus, there was no more question about Coolidge’s control of the party by the time the convention met in June 1924.

Still, Coolidge needed liberal support for the general election. He went so far as to offer Borah the vice presidency; the Senator hinted he might accept but refused the nomination when it was offered, fearing he might become a progressive hostage to what he now was wont to call “the Coolidge gang.” Ultimately, neither the La Follette progressives nor the Democrats presented more than a minor nuisance to Coolidge and the election outcome never was in any real doubt.

Coolidge proved his political mettle in the difficult transition period. A lesser man might have thrown himself on the mercies of either one of the party’s wings; Coolidge played one against the other and skillfully used events to his advantage, steering his own course and keeping his own counsel at all times. By early 1924, he was firmly in the saddle, no small achievement for a man who many observers had thought might well have been jettisoned as Vice President in 1924, had Harding lived.

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