Contrast Coolidge, not Hoover, with FDR

With several partisan plans for budget austerity on the table, and with the budget situation shaping up as one of the main issues in the upcoming presidential campaign, the anti-austerity faction has been busy hauling the tar barrel out of the garage and trying to tar the GOP in particular with the image and memory of Herbert Hoover – you know, that laissez-faire guy who sat on his hands in the White House while the country slid ever more deeply into the recession.

Never mind that this is a caricature of Hoover that gets everything wrong. Robert Murphy, in an incisive post over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, neatly uses the liberal pundits’ own words to discredit the point they are trying to make. It really is one of the more irksome yet persistent myths of American history that Hoover was a free-market ideologue who sat out the onset of the Great Depression – in fact, he was the most interventionist chief executive outside of war up to that time, and FDR merely extended and expanded Hoover’s interventionist agenda.

Coolidge and Harding are the two presidents whose policies provide a sharp contrast to those of both Hoover and FDR. It is a matter of conjecture what Calvin Coolidge would have done differently, had he been in office when the depression set in. If his life story, his philosophy, and his actions as chief executive are any guide, it is reasonable to assume that he would have stayed pat and attempted to steer the country through a brief albeit severe recession as Harding had done in 1920/21. There really is no way of knowing whether this would have worked better than the Hoover/FDR policies, other than the undisputable fact that these latter policies demonstrably did not work and the country was not lifted out of the depression until WWII.

Finally: remember that Coolidge had no great love for Hoover and famously remarked that “that man has given me nothing but unsolicited advice, all of it bad.”

Dateline Northampton, March 13, 1931

Calvin Coolidge’s daily column of March 13, 1931, had as its theme the then recently held conference of the National Progressive Conference. Apparently at that point, no one was yet aware that the progressive movement asa force in U.S. politics was on its last legs, about to be absorbed into the New Deal Democratic Party of the 1930s.  One is struck by Coolidge’s fairness: rather than condemning this gathering of what were after all fairly left-wing characters, he is willing to grant them sincerity, while remaining skeptical about the viability of their programs.

It is notable that Coolidge states as a universally shared viewpoint that the rewards of industry should be “even better” distributed. This alone gives the lie to the standard caricature of him as a materialistic stooge of capitalism. Equally notable is his qualification that this goal will not be reached by “more politics, or more government.” Evidently, Coolidge believed in the invisible hand of markets rather than heavy-handed government intervention to bring about prosperity.

There is no need for hasty judgment on the progressive’s conference held inWashington. Many sincere people attended it. Their assumption that they are better than any of the political parties will do no harm. Apparently they have an ambitious program. They seek to guide all other public officers. Their official members have not always shown great capacity for co-operation. If they now learn to co-operate with each other they later may be able better to co-operate with other members of the Congress.

The conference has accomplished little by naked criticism. Every one knows that the government is not perfect. Almost everyone suspects that it will not be made perfect for some time. Yet we all want to see it improved. We all desire progress, prosperity and an even better distribution of the rewards of industry, although in these we now surpass the world. Very few now believe that these things can be secured by more extravagance, more loafing, more politics, or more government.

The discussion may prove helpful. A reduction of vague ideas to specific proposals usually shows whether they are sound. The formation of a constructive common-sense program for perfecting the country will not be found easy.

In his eminently worthwhile book, “America’s Great Depression” (available as PDF at the Mises Institute website), Murray N. Rothbard characterizes 1931 as “the tragic year” – the year in which international crises as well as Hoover administration misjudgments pushed the country after an optimistic start to the year, ineluctably into the Depression.

Au contraire, David Greenberg

Over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Robert P. Murphy (author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and The New Deal) sets the record straight on historian (and Coolidge biographer) David Greenberg’s Salon piece on Sarah Palin’s new book – at least where Greenberg’s characterizations of Coolidge and Hoover are concerned.

The Harding Memorial

It is difficult to imagine a President falling from grace quite as rapidly as Warren G. Harding. Elected by the largest popular majority up to that time, and assuming the presidency in 1920 at a time when the affairs of the government were in a disastrous shambles following the illness-ridden final years of Woodrow Wilson’s tenure, Harding had pledged to return the operations of government, and the affairs of the nation, to a state of normalcy. While his administration was superior in accomplishments to a sizable portion of those in the nation’s history, as his biographer Robert K. Murray states, the record is overshadowed by the scandals that began to unravel at the time of Harding’s death. Although the president himself was never remotely thought culpable, his judgment especially in matters of appointments, must be severely questioned, even if the mythical proportions that tales of wrongdoing and easy living in the Harding White House have been and continue to be vastly overstated. Polls of presidential greatness have constantly placed Harding at or near the bottom, testimony to the power of historians and journalists to perpetuate myth over reality.

Shortly after his death, with the oratory from his eulogies still in the air, the Harding Memorial Association was formed with the objective of raising money for a suitable presidential tomband monument. President Coolidge accepted the honorary chairmanship and many top government official, including all cabinet members, were on the association’s executive board.

President Coolidge chairs meeting of the Harding Memorial Association Executive Board, looking appropriately glum

In mid-1924 Coolidge appointed a committee made up of Charles Schwab and Secretaries Mellon and Weeks to determine the location, plans, and allotment of funds for the memorial; they selected Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, and ground for the memorial, a circle of 46 Tuscan and Ionic columns in white Georgia marble, was broken in 1926. By that time, Republicans were not eager to associate themselves with the Harding name, and on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone, the only Republican official who was willing to attend and deliver an endorsement of his former boss was Vice-President Dawes.

(read on after the cut)

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A Coolidge cameo

50 years posthumously, Calvin Coolidge made a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s 1983 faux documentary movie, Zelig.

Using the magic of bluescreen technology, Allen and his cinematographer Gordon Willis inserted shots of Allen ( in his role as the human chameleon Leonard Zelig) into old newsreel footage. Much of the humor in this equally funny and poignant movie derives from Zelig’s pathological adaptation of his appearance as well as his opinions to his surroundings; thus, while he speaks “adoringly of Coolidge and the Republican party” in a refined upper-class accent while hobnobbing with the affluent, he adopts a proletarian voice while in the kitchen with the servants, as he seethes with rage against the “fat cats”. Zelig is depicted as a 1920s phenomenon that inspires songs and dances such as “Doin’ the Chameleon” and “Leonard the Lizard” and the film purports to chronicle the story of how a psychiatrist, played by Mia Farrow, attempts to cure Zelig’s strange and unique disorder.

Leonard Zelig conferring with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover

 

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink – Coolidge and Prohibition

It is difficult for us today to grasp what a powerful issue Prohibition was in its heyday. We instinctively see the 18th Amendment as an aberration that was never fully accepted or enforced, and surmise that the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was repealed in 1933, having been the law of the land for only about 14 years. If remembered at all, these years are recalled as a time of corruption and racketeering, while the widespread alcoholism and its attendant evils, which spawned the reform movement, are not focused on.

Liquor being poured down the drain during the height of Prohibition

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Random Coolidge pictures

Admittedly a poor excuse for a blog post, but I’m always pleased to find Coolidge images. All images courtesy of the Digital Collections of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

An almost smiling Coolidge with Vice President Dawes, July 1924

Men in hats: Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge

President Coolidge meeting with the Harding Memorial Association, including secretaries Mellon (seated 2nd from right) and Hoover (seated 2nd from left)

President and Mrs. Coolidge at the circus

Coolidge and the 1920s – the last hurrah of the Gilded Age?

The more I begin to read up on the Coolidge era, the more I also see the need to research more deeply into the years and decades preceding it. And my (preliminary) conclusion is that Calvin Coolidge indeed was the last of that breed of presidents who, by virtue of their traditional, narrow constitutional view of the presidency, largely refrained from “embiggening” (to use a Simpsons word) the importance and reach of that office.

With the exception of a few comparatively activist presidents, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln come to mind, that view had been dominant from the inception of the United States. The framers had devoted a lot of discussion to the question of what powers the “chief magistrate” should have, which is only natural as the new nation was about to escape the oppressive rule of the king of England. I’m no constitutional scholar, but if you consult the articles about the president, it is easy to see that an office with the extraordinary powers it has amassed today was far from the framers’ minds.

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A rare NEW Coolidge publication…and website!

Well, lo and behold, the National Notary Association is finally publishing the long-announced essay volume “Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together”, filled with new material from noted Coolidge scholars, among them Amity Shlaes, who is also currently working on a new definitive biography of the 30th president. Why the National Notary Association, you may ask? Apparently, the nation’s notaries are honoring the fact that the candle-lit swearing-in of President Coolidge after the death of his predecessor Harding was performed by his father, a notary public (the ceremony was later reperformed with a different official at the White House, to make sure there was no question as to the constitutional legality). Actually, that is only one reason: the notaries also see a compelling connection between them and Coolidge in his conscientious and selfless conduct. But of course!

Obviously, I’m happy, nay, ecstatic about this publication and its accompanying website offering interesting material (some excellent high-res pictures for instance…I’m downloading a 34 MB (!) picture as I type this). I wonder why the people I contacted at the NNA at least a year ago to get some information about the pending project were unable to help or even get back to me, but all’s well that ends well, I suppose. I can only hope they will be a little more responsive in spreading the good news about this book, which you can order at the NNA website or, of course, from amazon.com.

To me, some of the material on the website appears more than a little questionable, as when the scant section on historical significance characterizes Coolidge as being perceived as bookended between two boisterous and raucous presidents, Harding and Hoover, both of whom were reviled for allowing rampant greed and corruption (my paraphrase). While this is all quite correct concerning Harding, I question whether anyone except the unnamed author would both characterize Hoover as “boisterous and raucous” AND tar him with an undeserved and illusory reputation for corruption. But I fully expect the essays in the book to be on more solid historical ground.

So, excuse me while I hurry to order my copy! I hope this will mark the acceleration of what I think is a trend to reassess the accomplishments and significance of Calvin Coolidge even for our day. And here’s a tip of the hat to the Silent Cal blog, who had it first.

You can see the man was (mostly) serious.