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.
Harlan Fiske Stone
In a fascinating though biased piece at http://www.dailybeast.com, Jonathan Alter speculates that a conversation over dinner in 1934 may have played a part as a precursor to last week’s momentous Supreme Court turnaround on Obamacare. Apparently, FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, was worried (as was her boss), that the Court might invalidate many of the previous decade’s New Deal schemes, such as the NRA. President Coolidge’s only Supreme Court appointee and fellow Amherst alumnus Harlan F. Stone assuaged Perkins’ fears over dinner, stating in effect that anything framed as a tax fell under the broad taxing powers of the government and would be upheld.
Although Frances Perkins went to FDR and swore him to secrecy on the advance opinion from the court, the president and his administration were heartened by Stone’s view as it moved forward with what would become the most sweeping social program in American history. Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act) is the completion of the all-encompassing insurance coverage that Roosevelt envisioned when he launched Social Security. By reaffirming its constitutionality in terms of the government’s taxing power, the 5-4 majority opinion of the Roberts court follows in the footsteps of Justice Stone, who was rewarded by FDR with the post of Chief Justice when it opened up in 1941.
In pushing through parts of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly told one wavering congressman, “I hope you will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.”
Even if not literally accurate, this statement does accurately condense, in the proverbial nutshell, the mindset that liberals and progressives had regarding the Constitution – which continues even down to this day (read on after the jump):
The good folks at Vanity Fair/60 Minutes (now there’s a pairing) give us (in October, mind you) their December 2011 poll; unfortunately, they give no clues as to the selection process by which they arrived at the five choices of former presidents, leaving the scientific credentials of this “poll” somewhat in doubt. Now, we’ll never know if there is a groundswell of support for a zombie Calvin Coolidge (note the Halloween topicality here) to take the reins. Anyway, there seems to be a recency effect at work; while some people actually do remember those halcyon Reagan years, few if any Americans living today were also around during William Henry Harrison’s short-lived presidency. 😉
100 bonus points for anyone who recognizes the classic “Singin’ In The Rain” as the source for the just barely appropriate headline! It continues “…seized his knees and sneezed.”
Presidential greatness has been a subject on this blog quite a number of times. It does not take a genius to discern that the reason for this is that our favorite man Calvin Coolidge rarely (ok, never) is mentioned among the “great” presidents. And the reason for that is clear as well – the commonly used criteria for greatness (management of great crises, preferably wars, or the expansion of governmental reach into the lives of citizens) have been cleverly framed so as to exclude Mr. Coolidge. I have approvingly quoted Gene Healy and others who have questioned the very concept of whether presidents are supposed to be “great” and I’m pleased to see at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website today another article that questions the greatness of two presidents perpetually jostling for prominence at the top of “great presidents” lists. Lincoln and FDR violated the Constitution in so many ways and created unconstitutional precedents on such a scale that author John V. Denson rightly labels them American Caesars, and while some neocons may take this to be a compliment, it is not intended as one. Writing from Germany as I am, I’m seeing our own administration and parliament embark on such reckless and dangerous actions in the name of “necessity” or of “saving Europe” that I would like to hurl at them the William Pitt quote: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”
Calvin Coolidge had a deep respect for the Constitution and consulted it to determine the proper course of action. He did not read between its lines and he did not freely interpret its meaning to make it mean what he wished it to. He refrained from acting on stock market speculation because of several reasons, but one was that he felt the stock markets were a matter for the states to handle. He was under popular pressure to lead the U.S. into war with Mexico but instead expressly instructed his ambassador Dwight Morrow to “keep us out of war.” The man obviously had no idea what it takes to be considered great! In my humble view, this least Caesarean, least imperial of presidents is a clear candidate for the upper ranks of presidential greatness. But then I’m biased.
In an interesting photo dated Sep. 26, 1924, president and Mrs. Coolidge are standing in front of the Executive Office Building with two somewhat incongruous guests – Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
The Coolidges with Mother Jones and Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.
Reacting to the momentous event of his being sworn in as president following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge deadpanned “I believe I can swing it.” In the minds of his contemporaries, he did indeed swing it, but in the intervening decades, most historians have frowned on the Republican. Several times over the last half-century, the father-son duo of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have asked their fellow professors to rank America’s chief executives. These academics always deem Coolidge “below average”–in other words, they think he’s about as accomplished as the dithering Millard Fillmore. Cool Cal didn’t do much better in a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 “distinguished historians”; they placed him immediately behind Jimmy Carter. In the 1997 Ridings-McIver survey of historians and former politicians, Coolidge came in at number 33, right below Richard Nixon. It may be said that he was unfairly treated by historians almost from the day he left office.
Yet Coolidge deserves better. Continue reading