2010 JFK Symposium

Master Politician: Revelations About Calvin Coolidge

Thanks, Barbara.  Thank you, all.  It’s great to be here.  I’m sorry I wasn’t here this morning because I love New England history and since some twelve years ago I was asked at another gathering, where I suspect many of you were present, to talk about Calvin Coolidge and his Massachusetts political career, about which I knew virtually nothing – more on that in a minute – it’s good to come back.  Now you’re going to hear a lot of the same things I said then, because nothing has changed, but we’ve had twelve years of more politics and more history in this country so I’m going to try to weave that in. 

But I ought to begin, folks, because some of you have asked, and as I approach my seventy-seventh birthday, a number of people have said to me ‘what was this place like, where we currently are, before it became the site of U Mass Boston, the Kennedy Library, Massachusetts Archives, and so on and so forth?’  And the short answer is, it was a dump.  I mean a stinking dump.  We had methane fires that couldn’t be put out.  And when I first got into the legislature in the early sixties, the local state legislator, who happened to be Bob Quinn and subsequently became speaker, kept filing legislation to shut this place down and the trash companies kept fighting it and delaying its termination.  Boston Harbor was a sewer.  The Boston Housing Authority, like a lot of public housing authorities in the fifties, had decided that this was an appropriate site for poor families – totally divorced from the community and next to a dump – and so they built the fifteen hundred unit Columbia Point housing project, which not surprisingly in about ten years was another public slum.  So bad that when we finally began to go to work on Columbia Point and transform it into Harbor Point, a mixed income community which is a huge success, two-thirds of the apartments were empty because even the poorest of the poor in this city refused to live in Columbia Point, it was so bad. 

And I don’t have to tell you what a joy it is just to come out here and be with you, and think about the transformation of this place.  It’s really extraordinary.  The harbor is gorgeous.  By the way, there were thirteen harbor islands when I first became governor that were in private hands.  One of them had been a horse rendering plant.  Moon Island was part of the pollution control system of the time, which was a mess.  Thirteen of those islands were in private hands.  And some of them in terrible shape.  And although we were dead broke, if you think this recession is tough you should have been around here in the mid-seventies when they were calling us the new Appalachia.  And I remember saying to my Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Evelyn Murphy, ‘I know we’re broke but go out there and get those islands’.  She bought the thirteen islands for a total of three million bucks.  Do you believe it?  And today they’re the Harbor Islands Park System and one of the real jewels in the crown of this city.  So, it’s not only a pleasure to come out and talk about President Coolidge, but it’s a pleasure just to come out here and kind of reflect on what good people working together can do if they’re serious, and transform a place into something that’s beautiful and productive and a great place for us to have this meeting.

In any event, with apologies to those of you who were here twelve years ago when we had our first discussion of this, let me just tell you how we got into this.  I teach at Northeastern University, as many of you know.  It’s my nineteenth year there.  Except during the winter when, difficult though it is, we drag ourselves out to southern California and I teach at UCLA.  It’s a terrible burden but somebody’s got to do it.  And so Kitty and I go out to the Westwood section of Los Angeles and I teach in the School of Public Affairs at UCLA.  But for the last nineteen years I’ve taught most of the time at Northeastern, and continue to do so.  And one of my colleagues is Bob Gilbert, who some of you know has written about Coolidge, and has some interesting thoughts about President Coolidge, and I’ll reflect on some of those a little bit today.  And he came to me and said ‘they’re having this symposium on Coolidge and they want you to write about Coolidge and his Massachusetts years.’  And I confess, folks, that I had the same basic view of Coolidge that, stereotypically, most of us had.  Kind of a weird, quiet guy who didn’t say much and somehow became governor and then President of the United States.  And, unfortunately, I think that’s what, at least until recently, has been the stereotypical view of Coolidge and I shared it, because I didn’t know anything about Coolidge, myself.  And thanks to all of you, and the Foundation, and that symposium, I really got into this and it was a revelation.

Now, for one thing, I love history and I love New England history.  And so just getting into Calvin Coolidge’s career as a public official and as a politician in Massachusetts was fascinating.   But remember, he came of age at a very special time in the history of this country.  That is, came of age politically.  Late nineteenth, early twentieth century.  Wave after wave of immigration, bringing people from all over the world here.  My father came here in 1912, my mother in 1913, they were part of this.  They were part of this.  And here was this Vermont Yankee, educated at Amherst College – an interesting place, by the way.  Any Amherst graduates here? 

You may not be aware of this, but the current Prime Minister of Greece and the opposition leader are both graduates of Amherst College.  Both of them.  Papandreou is the prime minister, Samara is the opposition leader, both went to Amherst.  Both good people, by the way.  Both very impressive people, and very impressive public officials, now trying to do something about little old Greece.  Kitty and I were over there over the Memorial Day weekend at Anatolia College up in northern Greece and, of course, when I go there the press shows up and they said to me ‘what is the Greek-American community going to do for Greece in its hour of need?’  I said ‘well, I said, first, the U.S. has a few of the same problems you have, and we’ve got to work on them.  Secondly,’ I said, ‘we can’t collect your taxes for you,’ and, now, tax evasion is a national sport in Greece.  I said, ‘we don’t retire at fifty in the United States, so you’ve really got to do something about that.’  And I said ‘we can’t straighten out your bureaucracy.’  You know, they have about five public employees for every one they need over there.  So I said that those things you’ve got to do.  We’re not going to be able to do them for you.  We’ve got enough to do here at home. 

In any event, this Vermont Yankee went to Amherst College, settled in Northampton, as all of you know.  And, by the way, many of you know that Kitty’s dad was Harry Ellis Dickson, the long time member of the First Fathers and a sax at the Boston Symphony and associate conductor at the Boston Pops.  Harry was a wonderful guy if you knew him, and had a million stories.  His favorite Calvin Coolidge story was about a friend of Coolidge’s who saw him coming out of the Northampton Savings Bank.  Have any of you heard this story?  And he said ‘Cal you putting in or you taking out?’  And he said ‘neither, I’m filling my fountain pen.’ 

Anyway, but how it was that this Vermont Yankee who went to school at Amherst, settled in western Massachusetts, became the most popular political figure in Massachusetts before he went off to Washington.  It’s an incredible story and I’m going to tell it here with apologies to some of you who have heard this before, but maybe with a few new twists. 

Back when we had our symposium here, I was asked at that time to discuss Coolidge’s performance as a political leader during his Massachusetts years and, like a lot of other people, I had bought into this stereotype of Coolidge as a shy, slightly strange character who had little personality, not much energy and few, if any, political skills.  The research I did on the subject proved dramatically otherwise.  And I hope you won’t mind if I borrow from that talk rather liberally for our discussion today.  It’s a fascinating story and one that is rarely told.

Now, I’ll leave it to others to come up with the answer to how a man who is supposed to be painfully shy and retiring rose through the ranks of Massachusetts politicians, ran for office nineteen times and won in seventeen of those contests, skillfully maneuvered to become the President of the Massachusetts State Senate and subsequently was elected and reelected Governor of the Commonwealth and President of the United States.  How did that happen?  It kind of belies this stereotypical view of the man.  And clearly the common stereotype has very little to do with him.

On the other hand, you know it’s an interesting phenomenon, folks.  I’ve had to confront it in the 1988 presidential campaign.  The press kind of develops a story line on you.  And I like the press, I enjoy the press, one of my daughters is a broadcast journalist with public radio and has been for a long time.  But they develop this story line and almost, kind of like lemmings, they dig in repeating it.  And we’ve heard the Coolidge story a million times.  I began hearing in the presidential campaign, for better or for worse, that I was kind of a bloodless technocrat.  How can a Greek be a bloodless technocrat?  It’s impossible.  And after I’d heard this about a couple of hundred times I remember saying to one of the national reporters who was talking to me about this, I said ‘you know, like everybody I’ve got my strengths and weaknesses.  But you can’t be elected Governor of Massachusetts in these times and be a bloodless technocrat, whatever I am.’  But I think that story line is the thing that we’ve heard over, and over, and over again about President Coolidge.            

Now, like me, and many of us, Calvin Coolidge began his political career as close to the grass roots as it’s humanly possible to do.  Nobody anointed him.  Nobody handed him political office.  He certainly didn’t have a lot of money, a lot of resources.  He earned it by climbing stairs and knocking on doors in his predominantly Irish-Catholic Democratic ward in the city of Northampton.  That’s how he began.  And by getting deeply and actively involved in local party affairs. 

Now I don’t know how many of you know what the party structure is like in this state, but every community in Massachusetts has a Republican, a Democratic, city or town committee.  And in the cities, each of the wards has a party committee.  Coolidge began with his local ward committee, right down there, as close to the bottom of the last rung of the ladder as you can possibly get.  He became the Republican Party chairman in Northampton.  He worked hard at the job.  He lost a campaign for school committee, as you learned from that movie, but was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1906 and again in 1907. 

In those days, folks, if you think there’s a certain amount of distrust in government now, people were so skeptical of those of us in public life that they required us to run for reelection every single year.  Sam Adams was the Governor of Massachusetts.  He was the guy that I had behind me in the governor’s office, his portrait was behind me, because he was the fellow that refused to ride in the governor’s coach.  And when a young state senator said to him it was undignified for the governor to walk around town he said ‘young man, I’ve been walking the streets of this city for several years and I intend to do so until I pass away.  Now, I didn’t walk to work but, as you know, I took the T, so I figured having Sam Adams behind me was kind of a nice thing to do.  So he was behind me.  But he and everybody else, until 1920, had to run every single year.  And Coolidge had to do that. 

He returned to Northampton after he served those two terms and, by the way, at that time there was a provision that you only served two one-year terms in the legislature and then you left.  And he was elected mayor, twice, ward committee party chairman, state representative, mayor.  This guy didn’t vault to the top overnight, folks.  He worked at it, and he earned it.  And so he went back to the legislature as a state senator now.  Again, the tradition was you ran for a one-year term and you got out after two years.  And how he convinced the people of Northampton to elect him to an unprecedented third term, and how he then skillfully maneuvered to become the Senate president, is a story all its own.  But the then Senate president was a fellow named Levi Greenwood, had decided he would run for lieutenant governor then, I guess, thinking better of it, decided to come back and run again for his seat in the state Senate.  And I believe his district was the Beacon Hill/Back Bay district.  But, women’s suffrage, ladies, was a very hot issue at that time.  This was 1913.  And I don’t know how they did it, but the women of Greenwood’s district convinced their menfolk because, after all, only men could vote, it was time for women’s suffrage and they defeated Greenwood on the women’s suffrage issue.  Coolidge, having been just elected to an unprecedented third term, was on a train to Boston the next day.  And by the end of the week he had locked up the votes he needed to become the Senate president.  And it’s not a shy, retiring, slightly strange person who doesn’t understand politics.

Now, how the women of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill convinced their menfolk to vote Greenwood out on the basis of women’s suffrage, I don’t know.  Was there a strata there?  I don’t know?  I didn’t pick that up in the history books.  But, in any event, they did.  So he was, Coolidge was, elected to an unprecedented third term by a very comfortable margin and that was precedent breaking at the time.  He didn’t run for a third term.  And he not only got commitments to be the Senate president from the majority of his fellow Republicans.  Ten Senate Democrats voted for him also.  Shy, retiring?  Doesn’t sound like that to me.  And with a Democrat in the governor’s office, and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Coolidge became the state’s leading Democrat.  He was reelected to the state Senate from Northampton by his biggest majority ever.  Won the Senate presidency the second time around by unanimous vote.  Unheard of today.  Unheard of today.  And became Samuel McCall’s running mate on the Republican ticket for governor and lieutenant governor in 1915.

McCall, a progressive Republican, who, incidentally, was the grandfather of Tom McCall, the Governor of Oregon with whom I served in the National Governor’s Association, and, by the way, a prince of a man who never stopped reminding me that his grandfather had preceded me as Governor of Massachusetts.  McCall barely beat David I. Walsh for the governorship.  But Coolidge, and by the way in those days the governor and the lieutenant governor ran separately, and were elected independently of each other, although they obviously ran together.  Coolidge won, while McCall was winning by a very, very tiny margin, Coolidge won by a majority of over fifty thousand out of a half a million cast – in his first run for statewide office – and rolled up even bigger majorities in the annual elections that followed, including a near majority in heavily Democratic Boson in 1917.  Coolidge came within 2,500 votes of carrying Boston – unheard of in those days for a Republican to do that, before he was elected governor in 1918 and reelected in 1919 by a huge majority. 

And, by the way, there’s an interesting story about his running for governor.  His margins were much bigger than McCall’s, and a number of Republicans who were not happy with what they perceived as McCall’s progressivism although, as I will explain, Coolidge himself was a progressive Republican in state politics, were urging Coolidge to run.  He said ‘under no circumstances will I run against McCall.  I’m not going to do that.’  And McCall knew it, and he appreciated it.  And so when McCall decided to step down after his third term, he told Calvin Coolidge well in advance, ‘I’m stepping down,’ Coolidge announced his candidacy and won without opposition the nomination and subsequently won the election. 

So in twenty years after he first entered politics, he had become the state’s most popular political figure.  How had he done it?  How had this allegedly shy, cold, silent and insensitive man turned himself into a political power in a state full of class and ethnic conflict, and the rising strength of a largely immigrant based and increasingly powerful Democratic Party that culturally was a very long way from small-town Vermont?  He did it by mastering the art of politics and practicing it very, very effectively. 

Note that he wasn’t one of these people who ever trumpeted the fact that he was outside or above politics.  Coolidge never said that.  He campaigned, and he campaigned hard.  He climbed those stairs in working class Northampton and asked people personally for their vote.  He believed in the party system, and in party loyalty, and in party responsibility.  He was a delegate to Republican state conventions as early as 1898, and he took them seriously.  But he also reached out to Democrats and Independents.  He worked closely with the leaders of organized labor and asked for their support, and he got it.  He developed very close relationships with his Irish Democratic colleagues in the State House.  ‘Calvin Coolidge,’ said Jim Timilty, a state senator and the Democratic boss of what was then heavily Irish Roxbury, ‘can have anything he wants from me.  Cal’s my kind of guy.’  That was Timilty, the boss and Irishman.  And the boss of Roxbury. 

He campaigned hard and would make as many as fifteen or twenty speeches a day when he was running statewide – lessons he had learned on the doorsteps of his Northampton constituents.  He intensely disliked negative campaigning, and it almost beat him in his first race for governor.  But he simply wouldn’t resort to it.  And apparently, at least at that time, it served him well.  How he would have handled thirty-seven T.V. attack ads in today’s political environment is an interesting question.  But at least part of his appeal, one of the reasons people liked him, was that he tried to appeal to people’s better nature, and his refusal to get down into the gutter with his opponents.

As all of you know, he lived as simply as he campaigned.  In fact, he, Leverett Saltonstall, and I may be the only Massachusetts governors that used public transportation regularly.  He and his wife lived for years in a two-family house in Northampton, as all of you know, and it was only after he finished the presidency when he finally opted for a single-family house with some land around it so his dogs could have room to play. 

In fact, one of my favorite Coolidge stories involves an appearance he was scheduled to make at a big reception for returning war veterans at a theater in the Codman Square section of Dorchester, not too far from here.  A large group of dignitaries was waiting for the governor and his entourage in the lobby when somebody saw Coolidge alone, by himself, looking at some of the artwork that was hanging on the walls of the theater.  And when that somebody asked the governor if the welcoming committee knew he was there, he said no.  He had decided to take the streetcar to the event and simply was looking at the artwork in the lobby in advance of the event. 

In fact, he never owned a car until he became Vice President of the United States.  Now, as an old train man, I like that.  He took the train a lot from Northampton to Boston. 

In short, when you start at the bottom as Coolidge did, and fight your way to the top, campaign by campaign, for local office and state office, and as you take on ever-increasing responsibilities, as any of us know who have done it that way, you learn a lot.  You become a better listener.  And being a good listener is a very important part of being a good political leader and a public servant.  And you develop a bond with your constituents that is very, very important.

He was also a very effective consensus builder.  The Republican Party in those days was split, as were the Democrats.  On the Republican side, between party regulars and progressive Theodore Roosevelt Republicans like Sam McCall.  On the Democratic side, obviously, between northern and western progressives and southern Democrats who were not only conservative philosophically, but racist as well.  Coolidge worked hard to bring the two factions together within his party.  And, as I’ve said to you, when some of the regulars urged him to run against McCall he just would have no part of it. 

Much of his popularity, however, had to do with his political philosophy and his understanding of the needs of working people.  Now Coolidge, as all of us know, was no socialist.  But he would have had great difficulty, I believe, with today’s Tea Partiers.  His political philosophy and the causes he embraced were very much a part of the progressive movement of his time.  In fact, he said at one point that no political party could win serious support if it wasn’t progressive, and that’s a quote.  He was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and the direct election of United States senators, something that at least some of the Tea Partiers, incomprehensively to me, are seriously suggesting today ought to be reversed and the election of the United States senators be returned to state legislatures.  I think Coolidge, frankly, would have been appalled at that.  He supported limits on the workweek, maximum hours legislation for women and children, labor’s right to strike, anti-trust legislation, worker’s compensation, which was first enacted here in Massachusetts, and a state income tax.  He was the chairman of what today we would call the platform committee of the 1914 Republican State Convention that endorsed a sweeping draft covering health and safety regulations in the workplace, old age pensions, aid to dependent mothers, city planning, programs for the mentally ill and retarded, and criminal justice reforms like parole and probation, which were very, very new at the time.

As Senate president, he was asked to mediate the famous I.W.W. strike in Lawrence, and he persuaded the mill owners to increase their worker’s wages by twenty-five percent to settle the strike.  As governor, he even proposed employee representation on corporate boards.  That was Coolidge.  And, perhaps most relevant to the times, he and Governor McCall proposed universal health insurance for the people of Massachusetts nearly a hundred years before we finally got it.

Now don’t get me wrong, he was not a radical.  He preferred steady, orderly change.  But he also knew that a rapidly industrializing society was not the rural America of his childhood and he had no doubt that government had an important role to play in limiting its excesses.  Here too, his philosophy, if I may say, seems to be totally at odds with at least some of the kind of mindless opposition to government actions in the fields of financial regulation, economic stimulus, health care, and so on that we’ve been hearing from the conservative community during the past two years of the Obama administration. 

Now, did the fact that he campaigned hard across the Commonwealth have something to do with that?  I have no doubt about it.  You can’t do what Coolidge did politically, you can’t campaign actively in the state’s older industrial cities as he did – and, by the way, in his second campaign for governor he carried every one of the cities in the state except three, as a Republican – you can’t be exposed to those who represent working people, and you can’t be out there working the streets and listening to the concerns of literally thousands of people, at those political meetings at which he spoke, without coming away from the process with a far better understanding of what the average American wants and needs. 

He didn’t shy away from making hard political decisions, either.  When he was charged with the responsibility of totally reorganizing the Governor of Massachusetts under a new constitution that eliminated dozens of unnecessary state agencies, he did it with courage and with understanding, even though it meant the elimination of many, many jobs of loyal Republicans.  And he pulled it off politically, too. 

He did the same thing with the Boston police strike.  But he did not act rashly or precipitously.  In fact, his sympathy for organized labor was very much in evidence as he sought, unsuccessfully, to mediate and settle the strike.  Everybody remembers his famous dictum on the right of public safety officers to strike.  Very few people know about his efforts to avert it in the weeks leading up to it and, in fact, he thought his political future was over when he finally decided to take charge and fire the cops. 

And the political skills that he developed here in Massachusetts stood him in very good stead when he assumed the presidency after the death of Warren Harding.  The Harding Administration, let’s be frank, was a mess.  Badly run, corrupt, and poorly equipped to handle the challenges of post-World War I America.  Harding, himself, never seemed to understand the importance of exercising the powers of the presidency and he had a few other problems as well.  I’ll never forget Tip O’Neill telling a bunch of us about taking a tour, before it was demolished, as he did, of the secret tunnel under Pennsylvania Avenue that Harding used at night to visit his mistress.  I kid you not.  It’s now been demolished as part of a construction project, but before it happened, some of the Secret Service people said to Tip ‘you want to take a look at the tunnel?’  And he took a look at the tunnel.  Told us about it.

Needless to say, the Harding years were not a great time in American history.  Coolidge, by contrast, as my colleague Bob Gilbert at Northeastern explained so well in the work he has done, moved into the president’s office and proceeded to pull it together, lay out his priorities and execute them.  And he did so with considerable political skill. Skill he had developed as the Commonwealth’s chief executive.  He kept his agenda short, he involved the Congress actively and regularly in developing that agenda, he impressed a lot of people and restored national confidence in his government.

He was also, and this is something people I don’t think really know, he was a committed internationalist.  He spent a lot of time trying to build a durable peace.  He fought hard, but unsuccessfully, for U.S. membership in the new World Court. 

One has the feeling, however, that something happened to Coolidge after the tragic death of his son Calvin, Jr.  As many of you know, my friend and colleague Bob Gilbert believes that tragedy produced a kind of chronic depression in Coolidge that he never overcame.  Others may have different answers.  But one gets the impression that after his son’s death a lot of the joy of politics and governing that he had demonstrated here in the Commonwealth, and in his first year as president, seemed to go out of the man.  He was a relatively fulfilled man in the State House.  After his son’s death, one never gets the same impression about him in the White House. 

Could he have been reelected for another term in 1928?  Probably.  And I’m sure, as many of you know, he was no fan of Herbert Hoover’s.  But it would have been a very tough four years.  And had the crash of 1929 come on Coolidge’s watch, it would have been very difficult for him, indeed. 

His death at the age of sixty came much too soon.  For a man who had achieved so much, it was a sad and quiet ending.  But make no mistake about it, at the height of his achievements as governor, and in his first few years as president, he demonstrated a command of politics that was formidable, indeed.  And he earned it.  In the wards and precincts, out on the campaign trail, working hard to organize and build his party and produce a government that the people who elected him could be proud of.  And there is no doubt that, particularly here in Massachusetts, he did just that.