C. Bascom Slemp teeing up
Thomas Mallon, in his New Yorker review of Amity Shlaes’ new Coolidge biography, gives C. Bascom Slemp, who was Coolidge’s personal secretary between August 1923 and January 1925, a cameo appearance, noting he “seems to have been named by Nathanael West.” Slemp, whose appointment to the secretarial post following Coolidge’s ascension to the Presidency came as a surprise to the Washington establishment, the press, and himself, was actually as powerful a figure in early 20th century Republican politics as a Southerner could be; in fact, he has been called the most influential Southerner in the GOP for the period from 1907 to 1932. He first came to national prominence as the only Republican Representative from Democratic Virginia, and it was first and foremost his remarkable success in fending off prominent Democrats that enabled him to maintain command of the party in the Ninth District. At the same time that he helmed the “real” and functioning Republican group in Southwest Virginia, he also reigned over what was basically a skeleton of an organization in the rest of the state. Mr. Slemp was shrewd, calculating, resourceful, and tireless in his campaigning, a master at the details of organization and mobilization. While he was on occasion implicated in questions of patronage (not unusual for either party, and made public usually for strictly partisan reasons), he proved himself a valuable ally to high Republican officeholders or -seekers, especially as his influence transcended the borders of Virginia. During convention time, he was able to swing other Southern delegations to his favorite candidate. Between 1908 and 1928, he unfailingly backed the winning regular GOP candidate, perhaps most importantly in the contested convention of 1912, when he delivered 20 of Virginia’s 24 delegates to William Howard Taft.
When Coolidge named Slemp his personal secretary, it was a surprise announcement, as everyone had been expecting Coolidge to retain Edward T. Clark who had been his secretary while Coolidge was vice president. Among important proponents of Slemp were Speaker of the House Frederick Gillett and Secretary of War John W. Weeks, and Coolidge’s choice of Slemp was an early indication that he fully intended to be the GOP nominee in 1924. Most observers agreed that Slemp would be an asset to Coolidge in what was then thought might well be an uphill fight. The Democratic National Committee issued a statement that the appointment was “tantamount to an official announcement that President Coolidge is a candidate for the presidential nomination in 1924,” and a “first step to round up the delegates from the Southern States.”
In hindsight, Coolidge’s nomination in 1924 appears a foregone conclusion, but in AUgust 1923 his selection seemed far from automatic, and in the days and weeks following the death of president Harding, several prominent Republicans were being mentioned ahead of Coolidge, among them Sen. Hiram Johnson, and Governors Lowden and Pinchot. As it turned out, Slemp did work assiduously for the Coolidge nomination but chafed at having to report to William M. Butler, who headed the pre-convention organization and eventually was named by Coolidge as national committee chairman. Butler ruled the convention with an iron hand, bruising old guard egos right and left. Slemp, for one, had sought to prevent the humiliation of Henry Cabot Lodge, but his appeals were brushed aside by Butler, and the two differed at every turn when it came to the selection of the vice-presidential nominee. Slemp volunteered his resignation three days after the convention, but Coolidge prevailed on him to stay on until the following January. Returning to Virginia (and Virginia politics), he was instrumental once more in delivering the state to Herbert Hoover in 1928, but subsequently his interest in politics waned – perhaps because he was disappointed at not being rewarded by either Coolidge or Hoover with a cabinet appointment. In addition, his poltical antennae were finely tuned, and by 1932 he was able to discern the handwriting on the wall that the Democrats were going to be in control of national and state politics for a number of years – so it seemed like the perfect time for Slemp to tender his resignation as national committeeman. Congressman Slemp retired from the practice of law and returned to his home in Virginia to look after farm, oil and coal interests. He also set up the Slemp Foundation which benefits libraries, schools, and colleges in Southwestern Virgina to this day. Slemp died, aged 72, in 1943. The C. Bascom Slemp Student Center at the University of Virginia Wise campus is named in his honor.