Coolidge vs. Smith

In the autumn of 1930, former president Calvin Coolidge and former presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith  came out of retirement as a sort of grand finale to the Congressional campaign.  Characteristically, Citizen Coolidge chose the hushed solitude of a radio broadcasting studio at Springfield to appeal for the election of his old friend, William Morgan Butler, the Republican nominee for the Senate. Butler, who had briefly served out the Senate term of Henry Cabot Lodge, had been defeated in 1926 by Democrat David Walsh.  Equally in character, Citizen Smith chose the raucous, turbulent, packed-to-the-doors Boston Arena to plead for the election of Marcus Allen Coolidge, the Democratic nominee and a *very* distant relative of the former president (according to the Washington Post).

Marcus A. Coolidge ... family resemblance?

Smith had warmed up for his Massachusetts trip with three speeches for the State ticket in New York. He was in old time form, grinning much, champing his cigar, full of vigor and gusto. At New Haven on the back platform of his private car he greeted Dr. Wilbur Lucius Cross, onetime dean of the Yale Graduate School, now the Democratic nominee for Governor of Connecticut, by clapping the Brown Derby upon the old gentleman’s head and down over his ears. At Providence he bluntly began an address to 15,000: “Well, let’s get at it”—the “it” being a round flaying of the Republican administration. When the crowd booed his first mention of President Hoover, he waved them into silence with, “Don’t let’s take up the radio time.” (He pronounced it “raydio,” not “raddio” as he did in 1928.) A sample Smith crack of last week:

“Under a Republican Administration it is called a business depression. In a Democratic Administration they call it a panic. Somebody the other day called it a cycle. They ought to call it a bicycle because both Democrats and Republicans are being taken for a ride.”

At Boston, Stumpster Smith was given a popular reception hardly less warm than the one he received there two years ago as a White House candidate. In the arena an excited crowd of 12,000 yelled and screamed a five-minute welcome to him. His speech was another running fusillade of political criticism, with the speaker taking aim as of old with his phrases “Listen to this. . . . Well, what happened? . . . That’s history now. . . . Here’s the record. . . . Here’s a warm one. . . .” President Hoover was his main target. The house roared with joy when he asked: “Where are all those chickens that were to be in every pot? What became of the automobiles and the silk stockings for everybody?”

William M. Butler

After dark Citizen Coolidge motored down alone from Northampton to Springfield and went directly to the broadcasting studio in the Hotel Kimball.

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Taking the reins – Coolidge in 1923

William E. Borah, the "Lion of Idaho"

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.

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