On Jan. 29, 1925, president Coolidge welcomed to the White House a young lady named Vada Watson from Hutchinson, Kansas, a beauty contest winner at the inaugural ball of Kansas Governor Ben S. Paulen (Republican) just two weeks earlier. Her gift to the president was a small sack of wheat harvested by the president’s predecessor, Warren G. Harding – less than two months before his death in 1923.
August 3 is an important date for Coolidge fans. On this day, in the wee early hours of the morning, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the nation’s 30th president following the passing of his predecessor Warren G. Harding. The scene of Calvin Coolidge being sworn in as president by his father is a unique and cherished one in American history.
TIME Magazine of Monday Aug. 13, 1923 reported the event as follows interspersed with reminiscences by Coolidge himself:
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.
Sometimes, reading a patent falsehood on the web or elsewhere will prompt the wish to set things straight with a blog post of one’s own. The other day I read somewhere that Calvin Coolidge was named the 1920 GOP vice-presidential nominee as the result of a cabal in a smoke-filled room. As we Coolidge fans and followers know, that is the opposite of what happened.
The 1920 Republican national convention began June 8, 1920, at the Chicago Coliseum. Balloting for the nomination of the presidential candidate began Friday, June 11. Going in, the leading candidates were Frank O. Lowden, the well-regarded, moderate, and wealthy governor of Illinois, and General Leonard Wood, a long-time friend and associate of the late Theodore Roosevelt – these two were deadlocked. The other leading contenders were the fiery progressive Senator Hiram Johnson of California, and the amiable and undistingished, yet eminently presidential-looking Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.
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.”
A few days ago (March 4, to be precise) marked the 90th anniversary of the inauguration of Warren G. Harding, predecessor of Calvin Coolidge, and one chief executive who has been much maligned.
In an article over at National Review Online, Ryan Cole and Amity Shlaes stress the importance of presidents Harding and Coolidge in restoring the nation to an even keel, removing “regime uncertainty” and making the economic advances of the 1920s possible. For reasons beyond me, this kind of stewardship gets low marks from historians, journalists and armchair analysts. Today, presidents usually are a major source of regime uncertainty, coming into office as they do with the intention of leaving a mark on history in the form of new programs, sweeping changes, and, if they’re lucky, a war or two.
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.
Anyone who has done some researching on U.S. presidential history has probably at one point or another utilized the resources of the American Presidency Project at UCSB. And if any interested readers (you ARE out there, aren’t you?) haven’t, I can’t recommend too highly this excellent source of nearly 90,000 presidential documents, organized and coded in an easily accessible and searchable database.
And I’m happy to say I was able to contribute 2 out of these 90,000 documents only recently – check out, if you will, the following links to two addresses by president Warren G. Harding to the Business Organization of the Government assembly. Your humble blogger is acknowledged in the footnotes !
It would be something of an overstatement to say that Calvin Coolidge exuded charisma. He was unprepossessing and unobtrusive, fading into the background of cabinet meetings during the Harding presidency, and while he was a reasonably good speaker (especially on radio, a medium made for him), he was no spellbinder or “great communicator.” At least in part, his rise to the Presidency may be attributed to luck; having made it to the Vice Presidency, much to the annoyance of party bigwigs, they were plotting to get rid of him in time for Harding’s reelection campaign in 1924, and it was his predecessor’s untimely death that made possible the final step up the ladder to the nation’s highest office. Even so, he was by no means a shoo-in for 1924 and had to move fast and decisively to cement his hold onto power.
Once in office, he was able to win over his party and the nation by his personality and his competence – but it is doubtful that he would have been given the chance even to attain that office if not for a string of lucky breaks. While the obsession with outward appearance, i.e. presidential looks and demeanor, may not have been as much of a factor in the 1920s as it is today, people did remark on how much like a president Harding looked, while no one ever said as much about Coolidge. His charisma, or lack of it, alone would never have carried him to the White House, especially as his message of economy and efficiency in government, although appropriate to the times, was not exactly a shining vision to excite and rally the voters.
To segue to the political scene of today, should he decide to run, will Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels be able to win over the party faithful and the nation on the strength of his “charisma of competence,” as George Will charitably described it?
I have a sense that after decades of budgetary profligacy, America may be in the mood for more economy and efficiency in government, exemplified by leaders such as Governors Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie who are showing an almost Coolidgean willingness to take on spending excesses.
I haven’t tallied up the numbers and don’t know whether our situation is similar to, or possibly even exceeds, the fiscal calamity America found itself in after World War I caused an almost 20-fold increase in the national debt. In other posts I have begun to report on the efforts by presidents Harding and Coolidge, and their respective Directors of the Budget, to instill a sense of purpose and urgency at all levels of the federal bureaucracy but can’t resist adding a little item on General Lord, second Director of the Budget, taken from the book The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921 – 1979, by Larry Berman:
Lord actually checked employees’ desks for excessive use of official stationery, paper clips, and other government supplies. He also engaged in such quaint-sounding ploys as establishing a “Two Per Cent Club” for agency heads who trimmed that amount off their estimates, a “One Per Cent Club” reserved for the less efficient, and the “Loyal Order of Woodpeckers,” whose motto read: “All hail to the Loyal Order of Woodpeckers, whose persistent tapping away at waste will make cheerful music in government offices and workshops the coming year.”
Quaint as this may sound to the author of those lines, I can’t help but feel that it would be nice to hear that tap-tap-tapping sound emanate from government offices today – they sure would have their work cut out for them!
Please see also this more substantial post on the Business Organization of the Government.