James Eli Watson is a fascinating figure in American politics. As a U.S. Representative and later Senator from (and boss of) Indiana, his career and involvement in politics spanned the era from the Gilded Age to the New Deal. Credited with coining the phrase If you can’t lick ’em, jine (join) ’em, he was throughout his political life one of the best-liked personalities in Washington.
It was his good fortune early in his career to become the close associate of the powerful Speaker of the House and stalwart conservative, Joseph G. (“Uncle Joe”) Cannon, under whom he served as Republican whip. His service in the U.S. Senate lasted from 1916 through 1933, the last four years as majority leader, but was swept out of office by the Democratic landslide of 1932.
Watson was well acquainted with the powerful figures of the era, serving in Congress under 8 presidents (Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover). He also knew Harrison and saw Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur.
His memoirs, As I Knew Them, published in 1936, are full of anecdotes of the great and near-great of his day. Starting with the next post, I’ll “serialize” in this blog the chapter he devoted to Calvin Coolidge. Here’s a teaser:
President Coolidge, while favoring the adherence of the United States to the World Court Protocol, was yet much opposed to our joining the League of Nations. He had no patience with those Americans who were captured by the wiles and intrigues of the social leaders of Europe when they visited any one of those countries. He remembered how even so great a man as Woodrow Wilson had been completely taken in by flattery and cajolery and adulation and all the insidious artistry of the trained diplomats of Europe, particularly of England, and he said that every American should be wary of those intrigues. One time when he was summering at Swampscott, in his own state of Massachusetts, he wired me to come up and visit him for a day, which of course I gladly did. Seated on his veranda overlooking the bay, we conversed about everything and finally fell to talking about this particular phase of American weakness.
He illustrated it by telling how the head of one of our greatest colleges, whose name I dislike to mention because he is still living and because he has got very much away from his internationalistic views, had gone to Paris for a visit. He had been taken in by the people whose business it was to wine and dine and fête Americans, had been told what a great college he had and what a marvelous institution he had built up, and his vanity fed to repletion. As a finale to the ceremony they had pinned a medal on his breast “as big as a butter plate,” so Coolidge said; whereupon the eminent doctor “burst into tears and immediately forgave the debt.”
I shall never forget that Coolidge really laughed at this recital, for it seemed to him utterly ridiculous that so great a man and educator should become the dupe of such methods. And he said to me: “Senator, do you know that those folks pinned fourteen thousand medals on American people in just that way?” I was amazed an replied that I had never heard that story before, but I could well understand it, because it was the cheapest way to buy a vote I had ever known in my political experience; and in nearly every instance the vote was bought, though it did not always stay bought.