Coolidge and Adenauer

As a son of Germany’s Rhineland, I may be forgiven for being very fond of our first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who was very much a son of the Rhineland himself, down to that regional accent that, at least to my ear, has a very familiar and pleasant ring. More than anyone else, he was responsible for leading Germany back into the community of civilized nations after the atrocities committed in its name under the Nazi dictatorship, as well as for the economic policies that brought unprecedented prosperity to the country.

Adenauer and Coolidge were, by and large, contemporaries, having been born in 1876 and 1872, respectively; however, Adenauer lived considerably longer than Coolidge and indeed was elected to the chancellorship only at the age of 73; he subsequently (and amazingly) held that office for 14 years. There is no record that I know of of their ever having met, coresponded, or even expressed an awareness of the other’s existence. However, there are similarities between the two men in terms of their personal humility, modesty and frugality.

Adenauer voiced the following, Coolidgean sentiments in his farewell address to the German parliament on October 15, 1963:  “(…) I am going to listen. (…) I hope to be only  speaking occasionally. (…) One should not speak too much. The words of those who speak all the time will not be afforded much attention. One ought to speak only when it is absolutely necessary. ”

Adenauer at 80, in 1956, with his son Georg


Back when Republicans still won Nobel Peace prizes…

These days (or decades), the Nobel committee doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility that Republicans might be deserving the Nobel Peace prize (Ronald Reagan, anyone?), but there was a time when Republicans actually did find favor with the committee. In the early days of the peace prize, it was even granted to the first president Roosevelt, a figure not usually associated with a peaceful approach to politics.

While Calvin Coolidge himself never seriously was in the running for the peace prize, his first vice president Charles G. Dawes was co-recipient of the 1925 prize for his work on the eponymous Dawes Plan, an attempt to find a solution that would allow the collection of war reparations from Germany while at the same time preventing a collapse of the German economy. One criticism of the Peace Prize has been that it usually is awarded for relatively recent achievements (in marked difference to the scientific awards which generally come at the end of long and distinguished careers) so that some awards have been somewhat tarnished by subsequent developments. This is also true for the Dawes Plan which,  while initially successful,  proved to be unsustainable and was abandoned in favor of the Young Plan by 1929.


President Calvin Coolidge and Vice-President Charles G. Dawes

Dawes is an interesting figure, with a long career that included work in banking, the military, and politics. He was not Coolidge’s favorite for the vice-presidential slot in 1924, having been nominated on the third ballot only after Coolidge’s choice, Illinois governor Frank Lowden, declined. In office, the relationship between Coolidge and Dawes, such as it was, started on a low note when Dawes imperiously informed the president by letter that he did not intend to sit in on cabinet meetings. It quickly sank to a new low only days into the new administration, when Dawes, in his function as President of the Senate,  failed to prevent this body’s rejection of Coolidge’s nominee for attorney general, Charles B. Warren, famously opting to take a nap at the Willard Hotel when his presence as a tie-breaker was needed in the Capitol.  Coolidge may have suspected that Dawes’ absence was not entirely accidental, as Warren was a highly controversial nominee. Notwithstanding Warren’s qualifications, his rejection by the Senate is named by some as Coolidge’s most embarrassing political defeat. Dawes later was at cross purposes with Coolidge over the McNary-Haugen farm relief bill, supporting passage of the bill in the Senate. When someone remarked to Coolidge that Dawes seemed to be well liked among farmers, Coolidge replied, “Yes, I have noticed that the McNary-Haugen people have their headquarters in his chambers.” On a positive side, Dawes was helpful in getting the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed in early 1929.

Coolidge biographer McCoy notes that “Dawes (…) would not accept direction from the President, and almost as bad, when his views coincided with Coolidge’s there was the possibility that his work on behalf of Administration measures would hurt them. He was eagerly used by Coolidge’s opponents and resented by many of the President’s allies.”

Coolidgean humor

Calvin Coolidge met the White House press twice weekly, and revealed an uncharacteristically talkative side of his personality in those conferences. Of course, press conferences of the 1920s in no way resembled the ones contemporary presidents hold. For one thing, the number of reporters attending was much smaller then, perhaps no more than a dozen at any given session. For another, these were of course newspaper reporters; no microphones were allowed, and those intrusive television cameras had not yet been invented. Also, questions were handed in in advance, and the president decided which ones to answer. Most importantly, correspondents were not allowed to directly quote the president or attribute verbatim statements to him. Accordingly, newspapers of the period reveal little of what Coolidge said; the convention was to quote a “White House spokesman”.

From official transcripts of these sessions, historian Robert Ferrell has compiled a book aptly titled The Talkative President. Besides extensive, and usually well-informed and well-reasoned presidential statements on domestic and international matters great and small, the book contains a generous sampling of the wry Coolidge wit. This blog will return to this well of material in the future, but here is one little exchange from the time of the 1924 election:

PRESS: Mr. President, what are the reports from Minnesota? I understand the latest report is that the Republicans are going to carry Minesota?

PRESIDENT: I haven’t any specific reports about any states. My reports indicate that I shall probably carry Northampton*. That is about as far as I can go into details. That is based more on experience.

*Northampton, MA was Coolidge’s longtime city of residence. He also served as mayor.

90 years ago

Just a short note that today, Sep. 9,  marks the 90th anniversary of the Boston police strike, the seminal event of 1919 that thrust Calvin Coolidge into the national political spotlight and provided him with the opportunity to make a statement that is forever linked with his name, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

On Sep. 8, the police force of Boston had overwhelmingly voted to strike, and  a large majority of them walked off the job on the following day. With a situation that had been brewing for weeks rapidly deteriorating, governor Coolidge called out the state militia on Sep. 11, reacting to widespread, wanton unlawfulness. While Coolidge pledged to find work for policemen fired because of the strike, he also made sure that none of them were employed again in public safety positions, at least in Massachusetts.

It is worth noting that Coolidge initially expected his action to cost him any hope of re-election, let alone for higher office but acted as he felt he had to. While some have criticized his slowness to act, the episode is actually a fine example of his belief in delegating authority and having decisions and actions taken and carried out at the level closest to the people. Only when the resources and authority of the police commissioner and mayor had been found lacking, intervention from the state level was required and initiated without delay.

The SilentCal blog will feature posts by Amity Shlaes and Joe Thorndike on the subject of the police strike in the next few weeks, don’t miss them!

G20, Pittsburgh and Mellon

Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in 1926, image courtesy Library of Congress

Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in 1926, image courtesy Library of Congress

As members of the G20 prepare to meet in Pittsburgh later this month, it is unlikely that any of them will pause and reflect upon the legacy of Pittsburgh native Andrew Mellon who, following a distinguished banking and investment career, served as Secretary of the Treasury for most of the 1920s, under three successive Republican presidents (or, as some would have it, had three U.S. presidents serve under him). But maybe they should, for at least two reasons.

One, Mellon’s lasting achievement is the reduction of massive federal debt following World War I.  He succeeded in doing so not by following the policies of the earlier Wilson and later FDR and successive administrations by raising existing taxes and inventing new ones, but rather by cutting tax rates, reasoning that “the history of taxation shows that taxes which are inherently excessive are not paid. The high rates inevitably put pressure upon the taxpayer to withdraw his capital from productive business.” As finance ministers ponder how to reduce sky-high debt following intervention in financial markets, they are widely expected to follow the opposite path of raising taxes.

Two, Mellon was widely vilified after the onset of the Great Depression when he voiced his theory that the recovery of the banking system was contingent upon a process of weeding out and liquidating the weak banks. He also opposed deficit spending, instead advocating spending cuts to keep the federal in balance. At the outset of the current crisis, a small number of economists warned of the dangers of keeping “too big to fail” banks afloat, but to no avail.

Times have changed since the 1920s, and for better or worse, there likely is no going back to the largely limited-government views held by Mellon and Coolidge. We will never know how the Great Depression would have played out if Mellon’s policies had been carried out. We do know that his record for much of his tenure as Treasury Secretary was outstanding and his instincts, honed by a lifetime in business, were keen. It may well be that his policy prescriptions have some value for our time as well; maybe someone should leave copies of  his book Taxation: The People’s Business on the desks of G20 participants.

Creating the Coolidge image

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Calvin Coolidge’s rise in politics was remarkably straight and, at times, seemed almost miraculous. While some of this was due to being in the right place at the right time, being astute, reaching out across the aisle, and “doing the day’s work”, Coolidge also was fortunate in having the backing of men (and politics in those days was handled by men) who saw great promise in him and furthered his career.  One group of men might be described as Coolidge’s “Amherst network”. Best known among these men is Frank Stearns, who championed Coolidge and never tired of promoting him, while Dwight Morrow is another.

It was Morrow who first contacted another fellow Amherst graduate, advertising man Bruce Barton, to help “groom” their man Coolidge for the 1920 Republican nomination. When Barton first met Coolidge, he had only recently founded the advertising agency of Barton, Durstine, and Osborn that soon became one of the largest in the country (the agency lives on today as part of the giant Omnicom group). Much as Stearns and Morrow, Barton quickly saw the potential in Coolidge. As part of a small circle of informal advisers, he felt it would be the best strategy for Coolidge not to appear too ambitious, but rather keep focussing on his duties while his supporters worked behind the scenes for his nomination. It was Barton who drafted the first national magazine article on the Massachusetts governor (for Collier’s) in November of 1919. As Kerry Buckley states in the excellent article upon which much of this blog entry is based (“A President for the “Great Silent Majority”: Bruce Barton’s construction of Calvin Coolidge, The New England Quarterly, Dec. 2003),  it was Barton who conceived of the idea of presenting Coolidge as a unique personality with which Americans would easily identify, not in the sense of creating a persona that was at odds with the real person, but in the sense of underscoring those traits and attributes that created a unified, symbolic personality while de-emphasizing other aspects of Coolidge’s personality.

In words that pre-date the 1968 election campaign by almost 60 years, Barton wrote  “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority has no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: he lives like them, he works with them, and he understands.” Barton also prompted Coolidge (via Stearns) to reach out to the millions of newly enfranchised women, who were about to vote for the first time in a presidential election. The result was a full-page editorial “Message to Women” that appeared in the Woman’s Home Companion.  He assured Coolidge that his interest was more than professional. “It is a real satisfaction,” he confided, “to try to write where one can feel a real conviction.” Coolidge was grateful. “You were able to do so much more,” he wrote, “than I had any idea was possible.”

While the drive the secure Coolidge the Republican nomination fizzled (a deadlocked convention resulted in “smoke-filled room” dealing that handed the nomination to Sen. Warren G. Harding), it may reasonably be assumed that the assiduous public relations work by Barton and Stearns was instrumental in making the revolt against the similarly proposed vice-presidential nominee Lenroot possible. In an unprecedented rejection of senatorial management of the nomination process, the delegates nominated Coolidge instead. It certainly was no coincidence that the Oregon delegate who put Coolidge’s name up for nomination had previously received not one but three copies of Have Faith in Massachusetts.

After the Harding/Coolidge ticket won the presidency, Barton occasionally wrote speeches for the vice president. The, after the death of Harding, Barton became the principal architect of the image Americans had of their president. It was he who argued for the extensive use of radio as a medium to reach voters, a medium that was rapidly consigning old-style oratory and old-style campaigning to the dustbin of history. Barton enthused “we will build a wonderful Coolidge legend in the country.” At the same time he was not above using negative advertising: with the 1924 election turning into a three-way race between Coolidge, Democratic candidate John W. Davis, and Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette, he painted the scenario of the election being thrown into the House of Representatives, and to combat LaFollette, the red scare was effectively revived.

Barton remained an inofficial adviser to president Coolidge, continued to write articles about him even after his term in office had ended, and, fittingly, delivered a eulogy on national radio after the president’s death in 1933 that included the words

“I shall say something about him that I doubt you have ever heard any man say: I loved him. There was a very lovable side to Calvin Coolidge. He was unique.”