Taking the reins – Coolidge in 1923

William E. Borah, the "Lion of Idaho"

When Calvin Coolidge inherited the presidency following the death of Warren G. Harding in August 1923, his position in the Republican party was at first tenuous. He neither enjoyed the trust or backing of the still dominant Old Guard – his record as governor of Massachusetts had been vaguely progressive, and the events surrounding his nomination for the vice presidency had constituted a revolt of sorts against Old Guard forces. At the same time, he did not control the rebellious progressive wing of the party, whose leading lights such as California’s Hiram Johnson made clear he would contest Coolidge’s nomination in 1924, and Robert La Follette was mulling the formation of a third party.

Coolidge overcame the difficult situation in a most astute manner by straddling the fence, making overtures to both camps. At first, he began courting elements of the party’s liberal wing. His opening gambit was to win over the powerful Idaho Senator William E. Borah. Borah liked Coolidge, seeing in him a closet progressive who needed to be emboldened to show his true colors. Borah and his associate Raymond Robins frequently met with Coolidge in the autumn of 1923 and presented a laundry list of progressive causes. Coolidge made no definite promises but managed to seem amenable to their domestic and foreign policy agendas. But when he included a conciliatory message towards Soviet Russia, the furor this caused among conservatives made him cave in quickly, thereby angering the liberal wing who had been pushing for a gesture of recognition.

The liberals’ prospects began to brighten again when the investigations of the oil scandals completely uprooted the political scene. The scandals damaged Republican prestige, but particularly that of the Old Guard. If the president was willing to move decisively against corruption, severed his reliance on the Old Guard, and swung his support behind programs Borah advocated, Borah would offer his full support at the convention and in the campaign. Burned by the Russia recognition question, he wanted proof that Coolidge would not run for cover at the first sign of enemy flak, and his asking price was the immediate resignation of embattled Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

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