Inactive presidents

It’s always fascinating to see, courtesy of WordPress, the search terms that lead people to this site. Today, I note that someone typed in “why were the 1920s presidents considered so inactive?” which led her or him to this blog.

I only have the briefest of moments to begin commenting on this question today and hope to flesh it out a little more in the near future. The charge of “inactivity”, leveled against any president, is usually based on a very expansive view of the role of the presidency. Presidents, in this view, should be the movers and shapers of the national agenda in a proactive way.

It should be noted that this expanded view of the powers of the presidency goes far beyond what the Constitution’s framers had in mind. The last thing they intended for the presidency to be was a carbon copy of the British monarchy, and thus they circumscribed a very limited set of powers and competencies for the “chief magistrate.”

Harding was elected by a landslide in 1920 on a platform of “normalcy” which he rightly understood as a mandate to get the government off the backs of the people and not burden them with any more progressive schemes. Coolidge followed that policy, and saw it as his mandate to stand, as William F. Buckley later said in a different context, athwart history yelling “Stop!”

In 1926, Walter Lippmann described Coolidge as having mastered the “technique of anti-propaganda” by reducing public interest in government, by deflating enthusiasm for ambitious programs, projects, and political dreams coming from Washington. The Democrats and Progressives of his time worked hard to whip up passions for policies, programs, for politics generally—but Coolidge managed to take the wind out of those schemes:

“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”

Progressives of his day and historians of today may decry and belittle Coolidge’s penchant for inactivity, but it gave the country a much-needed respite between the progressive experiments unleashed by presidents Wilson and FDR, respectively. It is more than a little ironic that anyone aiming to emulate Coolidge today would need to do a lot more than merely being stubbornly inactive – he (or she) would need to actively roll back the progressive accomplishments of the past 80-some years.

Dissing # 28

Over at Slate, David Greenberg feels compelled to defend Woodrow Wilson against attacks by Glenn Beck and othe conservatives. Here, we have pointed out how illiberal and awful Wilson was from a libertarian perspective and our friends at reason recently compiled a short list of Wilsonian offenses. Greenberg appears to think that a century’s worth of fairly uncritical acceptance of Progressivist tenets have made them unassailable. I think evidence is accumulating that it was the central Progressivist idea that government was needed to step in and regulate the economy is the idea that in the long run will be seen as a detour, if not in fact a wrong turn. From my reading of Coolidge I get the impression that while over the course of his political career he was open to and even supportive of some progressive positions, such as woman suffrage, most of the rest were anathema to him. I’d be interested in learning what readers of this blog think!

Update: Calvin Coolidge, who encountered Wilson on a few occasions, eulogized him on February 4, 1924 with the words,

The death of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States from March 4, 1913, to March 4, 1921, which occurred at 11:15 o’clock today at his home at Washington, District of Columbia, deprives the country of a most distinguished citizen, and is an event which causes universal and genuine sorrow. To many of us it brings the sense of a profound personal bereavement.

His early profession as a lawyer was abandoned to enter academic life. In this chosen field he attained the highest rank as an educator, and has left his impress upon the intellectual thought of the country. From the Presidency of Princeton University he was called by his fellow citizens to be the Chief Executive of the State of New Jersey. The duties of this high office he so conducted as to win the confidence of the people of the United States, who twice elected him to the Chief Magistrate of the Republic. As President of the United States he was moved by an earnest desire to promote the best interests of the country as he conceived them. His acts were prompted by high motives and his sincerity of purpose can not be questioned. He led the nation through the terrific struggle of the world war with a lofty idealism which never failed him.

He gave utterance to the aspiration of humanity with an eloquence which held the attention of all the earth and made America a new and enlarged influence in the destiny of mankind.

The Sage of Baltimore

In a recent post over at reason, associate editor Damon W. Root takes advantage of the recently published new edition of H.L. Mencken‘s 6-volume Prejudices to praise the famous journalist and critic. As Root documents, and as any reader of Mencken’s works will find, the “Sage of Baltimore” was a foe of Progressivism, denouncing the prototypical Progressive as “one who is in favor of…more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.” Accordingly, he despised in particular the illiberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

Mencken, it is worth adding here, was largely friendly to Coolidge, saying he “has a natural talent for the incomparable English language,” although his assessment of the 30th president changed over time: where he had predicted, in 1927, that Coolidge would be “ranked among the vacuums; it would be difficult to imagine a more obscure and unimportant man,” he directed high praise indeed at the “vacuum” when he wrote in his 1933 obituary,

“We suffer most when the White House bursts with ideas. With a World Saver [Wilson] preceding him (I count out Harding as a mere hallucination) and a Wonder Boy [Hoover] following him he begins to seem, in retrospect, an extremely comfortable and even praiseworthy citizen. His failings are forgotten; the country remembers only the grateful fact that he left it alone. Well, there are worse epitaphs for a statesman. If the day ever comes when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Cal’s bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.”

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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