Meese on Coolidge

Edwin Meese in his Heritage Foundation office, 2005

Edwin Meese in his Heritage Foundation office, 2005

The Honorable Edwin Meese III, who served as Counsellor to president Ronald Reagan, as well as the 75th U.S. Attorney General, contributed a keynote address to the 14th Annual Student Symposium of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in April 1983. His subject was “Shaping the Presidency: Parties, Personalities and Press”, of which I include the segment on Calvin Coolidge. It’s a fairly long piece, but a nice example of one of the stalwarts of the Reagan Revolution extolling the virtues of Coolidge.

Setting the historical context, Meese states that during the 1920s,

“the Presidency was beginning to assume a far greater place in the American consciousness. Its occupant was becoming a fixed part of daily lives. As communications expanded, his picture and words were disseminated widely. It was ironic, then, that the first President to preside during a period of mass communication was the man dubbed “Silent Cal” by reporters who had tried to coax more than a line or two out of him. President Coolidge answered them by saying: “I never got in trouble for something I didn’t say.”

“Coolidge has been somewhat maligned by historians – unfairly I think, and I don’t say that just because his picture now hangs in the Cabinet Room in the White House, but it is true that he liked to sleep 11 hours a day, and that he refused to work beyond 4 o’clock in the afternoon. As he put it, “If a man can’t finish his job by then, he’s not too smart.” As one who has had some experience in waking up Presidents [Meese is referring here to his decision to not wake up the vacationing president Reagan when U.S. Navy fighter jets engaged and downed Libyan jets], I can assure you that I could have some understanding for President Coolidge, but it is a matter of historical fact that except in wartime, the Presidency, for most of our early history on into at least the early 1900’s, seldom required the long working days that we now associate with the Chief Executive. The reason might be apparent when we remember that Congress during those days was in session only a small portion of the year.

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This just in: What you never said can still hurt you…

…or your reputation, at any rate. Amity Shlaes and George Nash have done some research into whether or not Calvin Coolidge really made the upbeat remarks about the soundness of the 1928 stock market that Herbert Hoover attributes to him in his memoirs, and which John Kenneth Galbraith requoted to lay the blame for the 1929 crash at the feet of Coolidge.Turns out he very likely didn’t make that statement – which goes some way towards absolving him, although at the same time it proves wrong Coolidge’s own aphorism that he “never had been hurt by anything he didn’t say.”

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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S. Parker Gilbert (2nd of 3)

Part 2: Reparations Agent

The Dawes Plan of 1924 was the cornerstone achievement of American stabilization policy in Europe, the keystone of efforts to promote peaceful political change and renewed economic growth. It revised the Versailles Treaty by restricting France’s ability to use reparations as a club to use against Germany’s resurgence. Ostensibly the work of expert businessmen and bankers, it nonetheless had the backing of the Coolidge administration. Depsite the administrations claims of non-involvement, Secretaries Hughes and Mellon, as well as Ambassador Kellogg, mediated between bankers, delegates and diplomats while on supposedly private trips to London. Mellon in particular staked his considerable prestige as head of a private economic empire and as chief financial officer of the U.S. by recommending the crucial loan portion of the plan to Morgan partner Thomas Lamont. President Coolidge repeatedly endorsed the plan and was prepared to offer arbitration by Chief Justic Taft in case the London Conference deadlocked.

The Dawes Plan transferred reparations control from the Allies-dominated Reparations Commission to the newly created U.S.-dominated agent general’s office. Some wrangling ensued over which person was going to fill this crucial post. The House of Morgan in particular attached great importance to the selection of an agent general who would be sympathetic to their concerns, effectively vetoing the names of Owen D. Young and James A. Logan. Coolidge in turn vetoed Morgan’s initial candidate, Morgan partner (and Coolidge friend) Dwight Morrow, because he feared that appointment would fuel Robert La Follette’s progressive presidential campaign against Wall Street influence. After intensive consultations between Lamont and Mellon in London, and Morrow and Coolidge in Washington, the administration fully endorsed Morgan and Company’s eventual candidate, S. Parker Gilbert. As we have seen in Part 1, Gilbert had been undersecretary of the Treasury in 1921-22 and had developed an excellent rapport with Mellon before departing government to resume his legal practice.

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Changing of the guard, 1929 style

The excellent Ghosts of DC blog has posted for your viewing pleasure a charming little silent movie of the 1929 inauguration of Herbert Hoover. While I’m not a great fan of the 31st president, this little gem of a newsreel has some nice shots of his predecessor Calvin Coolidge and Coolidge’s wife Grace – and it closes with a sweet vignette of the Coolidges waving Washington, D.C. goodbye from the back of a train; they’re very obviously happy to be departing and the ex-president has an uncharacteristically big smile on his face to match that of the former First Lady.

Wealth and the presidency

A Romney supporter

The media, helped by his friendly rivals, have made Mitt Romney’s wealth an issue in the campaign for the GOP nomination – and doubtless president Obama will continue to bring it up if and when he faces Romney in the fall. There is some entertainment value in ranking the presidents for their personal wealth although it seems a stretch to even compare the land and slaveholding-based wealth of a George Washington, a Thomas Jefferson or an Andrew Jackson with the entrepeneurial wealth of a Herbert Hoover or the inherited wealth of the Kennedys and Roosevelts.The varying degrees of success in the presidency that these varied men experienced testifies that wealth is not a prerequisite for a successful presidency – nor is it a hindrance.

One thing is for certain – Calvin Coolidge will never be ranked among the rich presidents; ironically, perhaps, for a man still erroneously tarred with the image of crass materialism. I’ve always found it particularly endearing that Coolidge lived modestly though comfortably, and after his tenure in the White House returned at first to the old duplex in a residential street in Northampton where his family had lived before the move to Washington. Coolidge had respect, though not undue awe, for wealth – he noted that

“Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberty, the widening of culture.”

He dealt as easily with very wealthy men like Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford, or William Randolph Hearst as he did with the man or woman in the street. It is sheer conjecture, but I assume he would converse easily with Gov. Romney (after all, they both served as Governors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) and would respect his accomplishments in the private sector.

Calvin Coolidge in his political life rose above class antagonisms. He did not pit banker against working man, having sympathy and respect for both. It is to be hoped that tired clichés of class warfare will not play a part in the election campaigns of this year – but that may be an unrealistic hope. Conversely, I hope that Gov. Romney, if he is the nominee, will forcefully stand for an economic approach that lifts all boats by a rising tide of prosperity – just as the roaring 20s did.

Image by Charles Ommanney, for Newsweek.

Is “austerity” a dirty word?

In the current climate of economic turmoil, with Europe and the U.S. both trying to push back the fateful pay day when decades of governmental overreach and overspending come home to roost at the same time that economic growth appears to be stalling, so-called liberals and progressives like to argue against budget cuts with the Keynesian argument that austerity would be poison for any hopes of economic recovery, let alone renewed growth. As the economy lurches, and stock market indices tumble, you will no doubt see this argument made forcefully by proponents of unrestrained government spending.

Lucky for us, we can turn to at least one significant historical example when the U.S. government did NOT resort to hectic macroeconomic retooling, pump-priming, and deficit spending. As Professor George Selgin explains, the sharp economic reversal of 1920 did not deter the government (and this means essentially the just-elected Harding government, as the Wilson administration was hardly functioning at the end of Wilson’s 2nd term) from prioritizing cutting the bloated wartime budget and retiring the enormous wartime debt. Far from plunging the nation into ruin, these policies worked so well that within two years an unemployment rate of close to 12 percent had given way to labor shortages, and industrial production, which had fallen precipitously in 1920, rose to new record levels.Notably, government spending was tightly controlled during the Harding/Coolidge years, while the economy boomed.

As Selgin points out, Treasury Secretary Mellon was unfairly tarred as “liquidationist” by none other than Herbert Hoover, who did not in fact follow austerity measures while battling the Great Depression. Moreover, the Harding/Mellon austerity of 1920/1921, which was continued under the Coolidge administration, is rarely given credit for turning the economy around. It seems austerity just can’t win!

Coolidge and the 1927 Mississippi flood

“The Government is not the insurer of its citizens against the hazards of the elements. We shall always have flood and drought, heat and cold, earthquake and wind, lightning and tidal wave, which are all too constant in their afflictions. The Government does not undertake to reimburse citizens for loss and damage incurred under such circumstances. It is chargeable, however, with the rebuilding of public works and the humanitarian duty of relieving its citizens of distress.” (Calvin Coolidge, 1927 Annual Message to Congress)

McGehee, Arkansas, inundated in May 1927

Unusually heavy and extended precipitation as well as other causes, such as deforestation, brought about one of the nation’s worst natural disasters in the spring of 1927 – the great Mississippi Flood. Estimates of casualties and property losses vary, but certainly upwards of 200 people died, perhaps as many as a million and a half lost their homes and total direct and indirect losses may have amounted to as much as $1 billion (or approx. $11 billion in today’s debased currency).

President Coolidge acted quickly, creating a quasi-governmental commission that included cabinet members and was chaired by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The commission was to operate by networking and coordinating the efforts of federal, state, local, private, and nonprofit organizations and by close consultation with the American Red Cross, a congressionally-chartered entity that had been established in 1905 for various purposes, among them relief and preventive efforts in “great national calamities.”

During the three months from April through July, 1927, Hoover wielded enormous administrative and political power as the public face of disaster response, relief, and reconstruction. While Hoover made some glaring errors that foreshadowed his later mismanagement of the nation’s economy and his general resistance to advice, the general consensus is that the commission facilitated the quick and efficient utilization and coordination of governmental and private sector resources.

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The President’s doctor

Vice Admiral Joel T. Boone

Joel Thompson Boone was a truly extraordinary person who served his nation with great distinction as naval officer, physician, humanitarian and administrator in the first part of the twentieth century. Joel Boone was a fighter—for his country, for upholding the highest standards of the medical profession, in helping his fellow man and woman, and in repelling repeated threats to his own health.

Born and raised in the anthracite coal region of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, Boone had a rough start in life, losing his mother at an early age, enduring subsequently the presence of a mean-spirited stepsister, and working from dawn to dusk before and after school with only a cold plate for supper. But late in his teens, things began to look up when he met Helen Koch, the young lady who was to become his wife and helpmate in pursuing a long and fascinating life. Then the opportunity to spend his senior high school year at Mercersburg Academy, a fine prep school (later also attended by president Coolidge’s sons), made an important contribution to his education and personal development. It also led to a close and lasting association with the school.

Upon graduation from Mercersburg and Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, Boone joined the Navy and served with the Marines in Haiti and then again in World War I in France with the Second Division. It was this front-line exposure that offered the opportunity for heroic deeds and led to an incredible record as the most highly decorated member of the navy medical service. Among the honors he received were the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Having gained the attention of senior naval officers as a result of earning the Congressional Medal of Honor among other decorations in France, Boone and his wife, Helen, were invited in 1922 to the White House for tea with First Lady Florence Harding. Only later did they learn that the purpose was to determine whether Boone was acceptable as a candidate for the position of medical officer aboard the presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower. Soon the man who might have become just another country doctor found himself on the national stage, with responsibility for caring for the health of the nation’s chief executive, his family and staff. No one was to become better acquainted with the personalities—one might even say White House secrets—of the administrations of the 1920s. Boone was a figure of importance, in a position to know a great deal. By the end of his life, he could count nine presidents–Harding through Nixon–as friends.

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James Thurber: Mr. Hoover or Mr. Coolidge?

From the venerable pages of The New Yorker, January 30, 1932 (p. 13), here’s a little gem of a column by the incomparable James Thurber.

Purported (and subtitled) to be “a resumé of the letters to the editor which will appear in the “Herald Tribune” during the next few months, compiled so that you won’t have to read them all,” the piece made fun of the anticipated hankering of some Republicans and voters a Coolidge candidacy (something Coolidge himself had ruled out), and went like this:

To the New York Herald Tribune: I endorse most emphatically the letter of Mr. George W. Kent entitled “Draft Calvin Coolidge.” If we could all know for certain that Mr. Coolidge would be a candidate for the Presidency this year, confidence would be immediately restored and business would start on the upgrade. Coolidge for President and Prosperity would give us all new courage and would put an end to the depression. Unless the Republican Party nominates Mr. Coolidge it is doomed to a disastrous defeat next November. Mr. Hoover cannot possibly be re-elected. All right-minded people want Coolidge and Prosperity. (signed) Disgusted Republican, New York, Jan. 30, 1932

To the New York Herald Tribune: I say three cheers for Discouraged Republican and for Mr. George W. Kent, whose letter I missed but who seems to have the right idea also. The election of Hoover would inspire the country with new hope, while the re-election of Coolidge would only add to the depression. Count me in. (signed) J. H. PHIPPS [Ed. Note: Mr. Phipps seems to have confused the names of Mr. Hoover and Mr. Coolidge.]

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