A President Takes A Walk

Thanks to Jim Cooke, who not only is as knowledgeable a source on all things Coolidge as they come but also does an exceptional job (so they tell me) of impersonating the 30th president, I’m upgrading this post from a “random Coolidge pic.” Jim confirmed my hunch that the straw-hatted gentleman on the left is Col. Edmund Starling who headed Coolidge’s Secret Service detail. Starling, who had previously served presidents Wilson and Harding was retained by Coolidge in a manner he reports in his memoir “Starling of the White House” as follows:

(Following his return from the burial of president Harding at Marion, Ohio, Starling) “was completely exhausted and did not report for duty for another day. Then, at a quarter of six in the morning, I went to the Willard Hotel and waited outside the President’s suite on the third floor. I had heard that he was an early riser. At a quarter after six the door opened, and he stepped out, dressed to go for a walk. He recognized me and said: “Good morning, Colonel Starling, I’ve been wanting to see you. I want you to stay with me during my administration.” (…) “I will be most happy to remain with you,” I said. “I will consider it an honor to serve you in any way.”

Starling regularly accompanied the president on his morning walks. He was distressed to find Coolidge took no other exercise, and found his posture wanting:

Moreover, he walked with his head thrust forward, his hands clasped behind him, his shoulders hunched, and his chest sagging. I finally got up enough courage to tell him that since he walked for a healthful purpose he should not defeat that purpose by his posture. “It will do you so much more good,” I said, “if you will keep your head up and your shoulders back, with your arms swinging. The important thing is to stimulate circulation in the chest.” He paid no attention to me, and for a week continued to walk as before. Then one day he suddenly struck out with his head stuck up in the air and his arms flailing, so that I had to walk at least three feet from him, I said nothing. After a while his arms fell into a normal swing. He never walked again with them behind him.

So I suppose what we are seeing here is Coolidge after accepting the Starling regimen. At least the president doesn’t seem to be flailing, although Starling keeps a safe distance.

Picture courtesy of the Library of Congress digital photography collection.

cc walking in washington starling

The posing President

Posing with groups of visitors to the White House was something president Coolidge did often and well. Browsing the Library of Congress online photo archives the other day, I came upon a number of pictures that were new to me and that serve to illustrate the variety of such visitors. All of the images are from the period of May/June 1926.

cc and native americans 1926cc and group c 1926cc and group b in  may 1926CC and camp fire girlsMy favorite, though perhaps not the president’s (that prop sword looks a little threatening…): Continue reading

Those stylish 20s

gatsby_compWith this weekend’s wide release of Baz Luhrmann’s new and much ballyhooed adaptation of that quintessential Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby, it looks like 1920s fashion and style may be in the spotlight for at least a fleeting moment. And deservedly so, for the decade was bursting at the seams with creativity and artistic achievement in all areas of culture. And while the America of F. Scott Fitzgerald may have differed somewhat from that of Calvin Coolidge, I like to imagine that the Coolidges may have moved in social circles were fashions similar to the ones depicted in the new movie were worn, and may have looked at some of the stylish magazines of the era, such as the selection of Life Magazine covers from the 1920s pictured below… and I’m looking forward to seeing the film, even if it does take some liberties, musical and otherwise.


Sly as a fox…or a hedgehog?

fox_hedgehogOne of the earliest posts on this blog, since trashed, was one on the famous distinction made by Sir Isaiah Berlin that divided great minds into the “camps” of foxes and hedgehogs. This was in turn based on a fragment by the Greek philosopher Archilochos, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applied this nugget of wisdom to the world of writing and thinking, dividing famous poets and philosophers into two categories:
Foxes, who divide their interests among a wide variety of experiences and thoughts and who can’t be associated with a single big idea, and Hedgehogs, whose view of the world and reputation is founded on such a single big idea.

In Berlin’s view, examples of hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, whereas Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce are represented as foxes.

In the field of politics, an exemplar of a fox might be Jimmy Carter – a typical micro-manager, who famously even involved himself in the scheduling of the White House tennis court, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who focused his Presidency on a few major goals (“lower taxes”, “defeat communism”), set the agenda and then leaned back and let his staff do the work, who might be classified as a more or less typical hedgehog. As for Barack Obama, we may have to wait and see, although at the time of this writing, I fail to see the one overarching theme or goal of his Presidency, so he would seem to fall into the “fox” category. I’m certainly inviting comment and discussion when I venture that in presidents, it may be one of the signs of lasting greatness to focus on one big thing – independence, say, or the Union, or peace, or victory. Or, perhaps, normalcy and prosperity.

If we examine the life and career of Calvin Coolidge, I think we will come to the conclusion that he was of the hedgehog persuasion. While he certainly did “know many things,” the lodestar of his work as president undoubtedly was the theme of economy in government. This was his “one big thing” which occupied most of his time and was preeminent on his mind at all times. Nowhere did he wax more lyrical than when addressing the seminannual meetings of the Business Organization of the Government: he reports that he “rejoiced in keeping down the annual budget”, he avers that the real purpose of economy in government is nothing less than “the true and scientific progress of humanity”, he exults that “peace hath its victories no less than war.” The one cabinet member most influential and  closest to him was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and the one individual with whom he conferred longest and most often was the Budget Director General Lord, these two men being his closest allies in the fight against fiscal excesses.

Now, my literary and philosophical knowledge is not sufficient to analyse how fitting Berlin’s categorizations are. The point I want to make is that all of us human beings have to deal with getting through life successfully, given a limited set of resources. And those who single-mindedly invest those resources into a single goal or interest (the specialists or “hedgehogs”) will likely go farther in that field than those who spread their resources and interests far and wide (the generalists or “foxes”). Conversely, while they may end up more successful in their (narrower) chosen field, the hedgehogs miss out on many of the joys of dabbling in various hobbies, interests and domains.

Maybe the idea of hedgehogs being “better” or “wiser” than foxes (or vice versa) is not correct. Maybe, as is true in many things, there has to be a “goodness of fit” among the individual’s thinking style and his environment. There will be situations where the ability to juggle many things simultaneously is adaptive, whereas other situations may demand that one focuses on one or two big issues. From a lifespan perspective, it would seem foolish to focus on too few things too early in life, before you have had a chance to sample a wider selection of options and interests. Then, as life goes on, it may indeed be wise to focus on a few ideas and concepts that have turned out to make sense to you. Another possibility is that we need to be focused and goal-driven in our professional pursuits, while it will enhance our personal growth to have many interests in the private domain. Coolidge was a widely read man, with interest in philosophy, law, and the ancient languages. Detractors may say that his “one big thing” was to remain in whatever office he held, but it is true that in his case, the nation was lucky to have a “hedgehog” at the helm who was single-mindedly focused on the key goals of prosperity, solvency and peace.



Amity Shlaes podcast

Y’all can (and should!) listen to Amity Shlaes talk about Coolidge the Budget Hawk in a recent (April 18)  Cato Institute Podcast

It’s a pleasure to listen to her, she speaks with such clarity. Among other points, she states as the central take away message re Coolidge and the budget that he actually left office with the federal budget lower than it was when he came in – no small feat, and, I would wager, one that hasn’t been repeated by any of his successors.

Muscle Shoals

For the history-minded, news that president Obama appears to be mulling a possible privatization of the TVA is at least a little bit ironic – and definitively ironic is the opposition that Tennessee’s two Republican Senators are already voicing against any such proposal.

Sen. George W. Norris (photo courtesy Digital Archives. Library of Congress)

Sen. George W. Norris (photo courtesy Digital Archives. Library of Congress)

During the 1920s, the virtues of public vs. private ownership of dams and plants to harness the Tennessee River’s giant hydroelectric potential were hotly debated. Originally, the U.S. government had begun construction on two dams and two nitrate plants near Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama during WW I. When the war ended before the project was completed, the Harding administration at first sought to transfer the installation into private ownership.

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Greed is good, as the famous Gordon Gecko quote goes. And for while, back in the roaring 80s, it was. But today, you’re certain of applause if you decry greed among bankers, financiers, the so-called 1%, maybe even politicians. Greed is suspected as the root of all evil, certainly as the root cause of the recent and to some extent ongoing financial crisis or crises. In popular opinion, and consequently in politics, such swings of the pendulum happen all the time. It was that way when the Roaring 1920s gave way to the 1930s, and similarly to today, greed was easily named as the main culprit by many observers.

Calvin Coolidge, having removed himself by choice from the helm of the ship of state, was out of office by then. He mused about the causes of the Great Depression:

“We may say that it was the result of greed and selfishness. But what body is to be specifically charged with that? Were the wage earners too greedy in getting all they could for their work? Were the managers of enterprise, big or little, too greedy in trying to operate at a profit? Were the farmers too greedy in their efforts to make more money by tilling more land and enlarging their production? The most we can say is that there has been a general lack of judgment so widespread as to involve practically the whole country.”

I think Coolidge has a point here. The central question seems to be that those who decry greed disregard the acquisitive side of human nature. Worse, by pointing the finger at “the greedy,” they assume the role of arbiter of what is right and proper for human beings to aspire to. And here is the root cause of the progressive impetus – telling other people what is right, how things ought to be done, what is fair and equitable, how wealth ought to be distributed, how much money constitutes a fair income. By instinct and by experience, Coolidge recoiled from such social engineering.

C. Bascom Slemp

C. Bascom Slemp teeing up

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.

S. Parker Gilbert (3rd of 3)

S. Parker Gilbert in 1931, as partner at J.P.Morgan

S. Parker Gilbert in 1931, as partner at J.P.Morgan

In Parts 1 and 2, we have seen S. Parker Gilbert apply his financial brilliance to tax reform and to the reconstruction of war-torn Europe. The last glimpses we now get of him are as a commentator on the intraparty struggles leading up to the 1928 Republican convention.

Part 3: In opposition to Hoover

Herbert Hoover won his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928 overwhelmingly on the first ballot, and to many this seemed a foregone conclusion, a mere ratification of Hoover’s foreordained role as standard bearer. But in reality his grasp of the nomination had been shaky until days before the party met in Kansas City. While he was popular with independents, progressives, and liberals, there was, in fact, widespread opposition to Hoover within the GOP. His Republican credentials were uncertain – as late as 1920 he had not unequivocally denied Democratic attempts to name him a presidential candidate and had actually won the Democratic primary in Michigan that year.
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