Mellon (front row left) seated with Secretary of State Kellogg (2nd from left), President Coolidge (front row center) and Chief Justice Taft (front row 2nd from right) at a 1927 Smithsonian regents’ meeting. Looks like someone didn’t get the dress code memo! (thanks to reader T.S. Schurk for that observation)
I’m piggybacking here (and a few days late at that) on another excellent blog post by the always enjoyable Burt Folsom. Next to Calvin Coolidge, there is hardly a politician dearer to my heart than Andrew Mellon (ol’ Andy Mellon, as Coolidge is supposed to have referred to him; not to his face, one assumes). Folsom neatly and briefly encapsulates Mellon’s accomplishments; for anyone interested in the full account, the substantial biography by David Cannadine is highly recommended. Taxation to Mellon was “the people’s business” and with the full support of presidents Harding and Coolidge, he strove to reduce the tax burden on all except the very rich while reducing the onerous debt burden left over from WWI. There is some poignancy in that Mellon’s life, while outwardly a huge success story, was tinged with failure and sadness on the personal and relationship levels – and, as Folsom mentions, the final years of his life were marred by the politically motivated campaign waged against him by FDR. He deserves to be remembered with respect and admiration.
The always recommended Burt Folsom poses the question “Who was the last president to have a great second term?” and you’ll never guess who – none other than Calvin Coolidge (some might claim his second term wasn’t really that, as his “first term” consisted of serving out his predecessor’s term). As Folsom goes down the list of two-termers since Coolidge, it becomes clear that second terms have a way of being a letdown. While circumstances and events were different in each of those cases, there is little doubt that re-elected presidents usually have an eye on their legacy, which unfortunately often means the creation of projects and programs that saddle future generations with snowballing costs. It is a safe bet that Barack Obama will try to leave a progressive legacy, and not follow the restrained course of Coolidge, but a gridlocked Congress and the lack of a true mandate may mean that his leeway in shaping his legacy turns out to be somewhat constrained. If a costly legacy is what he has in mind, there is hope that his second term will join the list of failed second terms that are a letdown for presidents but a respite for the nation.