Before I received my old-fashioned paper copy of reason magazine in the mail today, I hadn’t been aware that there is an apparently not-that-new-anymore book out that features a revived William Howard Taft entering the 2012 race for the presidency. I’m looking forward to reading this – but I am a little disappointed that author Jason Heller chose to reanimate Taft rather than Coolidge, who I feel would be a candidate better suited to the budget-cutting needs of today and tomorrow. Still, Taft certainly was a larger-than-life figure in more ways than one, and the premise, though far-fetched, sounds intriguing. And it could have been worse – he could’ve picked Wilson or either one of the Roosevelts 😉
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.
The Fenway Park 100 blog has a nice pictorial history of presidents throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the baseball season – a tradition that started with William Howard Taft. It seems “Old Cal” had a sure and lucky touch – of the four games in which Coolidge threw the opening pitch, the capital’s home team, the Washington Senators, were 3-1 with the only loss suffered at the hands (or bats) of the Boston Red Sox.
And they’re off! With yesterday’s Iowa caucuses ushering in the “hot” phase of constant campaigning leading up to the Republican Convention this summer, we may well look with a touch of nostalgia at earlier times when the political circus wasn’t quite so all-pervasive, albeit less open and transparent.
Certainly Calvin Coolidge never had to face a presidential primary. In his day, there may have been some genteel campaigning and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but the real dealmaking and vote-counting (not to mention vote buying) took place during the national convention, where party bigwigs wheeled and dealed to determine the makeup of the national ticket. If primaries were held at all, such as in the contested 1912 race, when Teddy Roosevelt challenged incumbent president William Howard Taft for the nomination, they were generally non-binding – Taft would have sunk like a stone if the primaries had been binding, but he controlled the convention and was nominated, prompting the Bull Moose Party split from the GOP.
Broader use and acceptance of the primary system only came in the wake of the chaotic 1968 Democratic campaign and convention, bringing more transparency to the nominating process, but also a prolonged political battle. Criticism of the primary system has focused on the non-representativeness of early caucus and primary battlefields, and on the front-loading effect that ensures that the nomination is all but decided before many people in many states have had a chance to influence the selection process. While some proposals have been floated, such as a national primary, they are not without their own flaws, and it’s likely we will be stuck with the present nomination process for the time being.
For Coolidge fans, it’s fun to speculate how well their man would have done if exposed to the selection process as practiced today. In my view, it’s difficult to say – while he did prove adept at “retail politics” on the local and state level, he was obviously not a back-slapping gladhander, and with a national campaign, he probably would have done well to rely on radio, the one medium that allowed him to shine. Apart from that, a lot would have depended on his organization.
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.
Recently, former president Jimmy Carter expressed the opinion that his conduct of his post-presidential years was “probably superior” to that of other retired presidents, while George W. Bush declined an invitation to attend the ground zero commemoration, among other reasons, out of a desire to stay out of the spotlight.
There just is no job description for former presidents; we have no particular, prescribed role for these leaders who have served their country. Only a few have chosen to seek and fill other political roles – John Quincy Adams served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives, William Howard Taft fulfilled his dream of becoming Chief Justice.
A description has been offered that our political system assigns any former president the role of “public man despite himself.” For no one of that select group is that more apt than for Calvin Coolidge. Returning home to Northampton by train on March 4, 1929 straightaway from the Hoover inauguration, the Coolidges hoped to return to a quiet life and private existence after many years of public service. But Coolidge was too well remembered, too well admired too much respected, for his fellow Americans to leave him alone – he was pestered on his front porch, accosted in the street, and pursued in his office. Coolidge complained to Ralph Hemenway, his law partner from earlier days,
“Did you ever stop to think what a task it is to speak to every person you see on the streets? It is nice to say good morning to several persons, and to shake hands with them; but it is hard to say good morning to several hundred, and to shake hands with each one of them.”
This happened all the time, whether the former president was at home in Northampton, vacationing in his boyhood home in Vermont, or attending to business affairs in Boston or New York, he always had to contend with an admiring throng showering him with an attention he neither wanted nor sought.
Coolidge did not make any lengthy trips during his retirement years; in a 1932 interview he said that
“If I travel, courtesy requires that I make speeches, sometimes, and there is always the danger of saying something that will cause embarrassment. I couldn’t go to Europe without accepting honors and seeing people.”
Still, he was on the go quite a bit, often to Boston, to Amherst, where he served on the Board of Trustees, and monthly to New York City, for meetings of the New York Life Insurance Company. While he appeared to enjoy these trips, he certainly did not like to be harrassed by the press, to be called upon to speak publicly, and to be subjected to the presence of substantial crowds. On one 1930 trip to the West Coast, according to the New York Times,
“…a reporter got into the [Coolidge] apartment and met the former president in his bathrobe coming from a shower. “Mr. Coolidge,” the reporter asked, “is it true that you are planning to run again for the presidency?” Mr. Coolidge told the reporter to depart at once.” (Actually, Coolidge’s exact words to the reporter were “not fit to print.”)
All in all, Coolidge did not relish the attention lavished upon him by a nation that fondly remembered him as a symbol of the prosperous and roaring 20s. He would have been perfectly happy to disappear from public view. Having looked forward to a leisurely retirement as a reward for his years of service, he was to some extent frustrated by those with an interest in keeping him in the public eye. It is possible that the demands made upon him contributed to hastening his untimely death at only 60 years of age, on January 5, 1933.
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.