2010 JFK Symposium

The 1924 Election—A Landslide Victory for Coolidge

Garland S. Tucker III

Thank you very much.  I was very flattered when Bob Kirby called and asked me if I would do this today, and I was particularly flattered when he told me that I’d be following Governor Dukakis, who was going to be talking about Coolidge’s work as a politician in the state of Massachusetts.  And as I was feeling very good about the conversation, then Bob let it drop at the end that, in addition to maybe talking about this, he thought it would be nice to have a southern accent.  So I think maybe I’m part of the Foundation’s diversity program or something like that.  Bob, thank you for inviting me.  I’m really delighted to be here.

As we’ve heard this morning, there’s no question that Calvin Coolidge was very much a product of his region.  There’s a New England saying that Coolidge supposedly was very fond of quoting, and that is that ‘the education of every man begins two to three generations before he is born’, and certainly that was true of Coolidge.  There’s no question, he was a product of New England.

I think one of the great things about Coolidge, and we’ve gotten a sense of it this morning as a thread of continuity through everything we’ve heard, is that Calvin Coolidge really was what he appeared.  He really was a taciturn, thrifty, hard working, honest, unpretentious New England puritan.  That’s what he appeared to be and I think that’s what he really was.

He often boasted to people that “No Coolidge ever went West.”  And I think what he meant by that was that his family had settled in Vermont.  It was a tough place to make a go of it as  farmers, but they had stayed.  They had, from generation to generation, made a living with no complaints and no excuses.  They had fulfilled their duty and been hard workers, and he saw that as his heritage.

Again, as we’ve heard this morning, from Plymouth Notch then, later, Amherst College, then Northampton, Coolidge entered the Massachusetts political arena and began a steady rise to the governorship.  William Allen White in his book on Coolidge used a somewhat cynical but very memorable phrase.  He said that Coolidge burst upon the political scene like “a museum piece.  Coming like a waxwork figure of a Puritan boy, out of the social museum that is rural Vermont.”  That paints a pretty graphic picture but, I think, in some ways, maybe a bit cynical, but there was certainly some truth to that.

He progressed from city council to state legislature to lieutenant governor, finally to governor.  And it was as Governor of Massachusetts that he achieved national prominence with his handling of the police strike.  And those words that we’ve heard several times this morning about “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”  There’s no question that is what catapulted Coolidge onto the national scene.  But, I think it illustrates something that he was able to do throughout his political career and that is an ability to simplify and to distill down to a very short sentence, a sound bite, if you will – which was not a term, I’m sure, that he had ever heard – but to distill it down so that people could understand it, first, and remember it, second.  That’s absolutely what happened with the police strike in 1919 and we see it other times later in his presidency, he was able to do this.

Shortly after the police strike, as Coolidge had gained some national prominence, the New York World newspaper sent a reporter up to Boston to interview Governor Coolidge.  And he had by this time become something of a national figure.  There were questions all over the country about what kind of man is this who settled the police strike.  And this reporter filed, I think, a really amazing article.  I’m going to read you a fairly lengthy excerpt, but I think it is very insightful into the kind of person that Calvin Coolidge was.  This is what he wrote:

To one who has never seen Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts, he is a sphinx, or an enigma.  He talks little.  It is his silences which seem to speak loudest, for when one ventures to put a question to him, the answer comes in a tightening of the governor’s lean face and the closing of his lips.  He has a lean and hungry look, and the Policeman’s Union and the Central Labor Union of Boston discovered that such men are dangerous. 

Contrary to the accepted characteristics of the usual sorts of politicians, “Cal” Coolidge seldom smiles, hardly ever does any hand shaking, and has a reputation that his word is as good as gold. 

Ethnologists in search of specimens to be preserved in bronze as a reminder of the type of true New Englanders for future generations should come on up to Boston and take the measure of this governor.  He is the type of New Englander one sees on the stage – long and thin.  He has red hair tinged with grey.  A pair of pale-blue eyes pierce the veil of silence that usually envelops his face.  Where other men may smile, “Cal” Coolidge is grave.  Where home folks pretend to effervesce with enthusiasm for a visitor or the possessor of a vote, the governor is aloof and forbidding. 

Generally speaking, Governor Coolidge is a living contradiction of that school of politicians anxious for a career.  Massachusetts politicians do not do him homage, but few, if any, have ever discovered the secret of his success.  Politicians say it would be impossible to beat Coolidge in an election with a baseball bat.  He is regarded as unbeatable, and had proved himself so from the moment he entered politics.  He has passed without threat or fear from member of the legislature, president of the Senate, lieutenant governor to governor.  The governor is a Republican, but it is said that the Democrats would do anything for him, many of them as much as vote for him.

I think that’s a remarkable tribute to, as Governor Dukakis said, an amazing politician.  Coolidge could not have had the political record in the state of Massachusetts that he had if he had not been a very good politician. 

He connected with the people in ways that we don’t think politicians use, but he made it work.  He had an unusual ability to, in one sense, separate himself from politics, make people think he was not a politician, but at the same time make them want to vote for him.  It’s an amazing combination and one that served him very well.

The immediate effect of Coolidge coming onto the national stage with the police strike was in 1920 the Republicans nominated him for vice president.  And, unlike the nomination of Harding, which was very famously engineered by the Republican bosses in a smoke filled back room, the nomination of Coolidge as vice president at that convention was basically a spontaneous outpouring of delegates.  It was not scripted.  Harding hadn’t decided who he wanted for vice president, but all of a sudden the convention just, basically, stampeded for Coolidge and he was put on the ticket and proved to be a very good campaigner. 

It’s important as a backdrop, before we look at the 1924 election, to understand how Coolidge and Harding came into office in 1920.  The nation was enmeshed in a very severe recession.  Governor Dukakis talked about the good times of the twenties.  Well, the 1920s started in a very bad economic period and one of the most severe recessions we’ve ever seen.  Unemployment was over twenty percent.  Income tax rates were at a staggering seventy-seven percent at the end of World War I.  GNP was shrinking and labor strikes were very numerous.  And, in response to this situation in 1920, the public rejected the progressivism of Wilson and the Democrats.  The country veered sharply to the right and embraced Harding and Coolidge in a landslide election. 

And it was in this economic period that Harding and Coolidge came into office.  And it was in this period at the outset of Harding’s administration that, as we heard earlier today, Andrew Mellon came in as Secretary of the Treasury and began to implement the fiscal policies which were to define the twenties, including Coolidge’s presidency in the mid-twenties.  Those policies were lower taxes and reduced government spending.

By 1923, the policies of the Harding administration were beginning to take hold.  Unemployment was declining, the tax rates had been reduced some, government spending had been brought down and the economy was responding and beginning to grow.  And, surprising to many modern readers, President Harding was immensely popular.  There were only beginning to be just some whispers about impropriety in his administration.  Nothing major had broken at that point, and in the summer of 1923 Harding went west for a vacation and died very unexpectedly while on vacation.  And the nation responded with an outpouring of genuine regret and grief.  It was a very sad moment.  The New York Times had an article that compared the outpouring to that of President Lincoln.  When we read that today, I think, it’s surprising to all of us.  But Harding at the time of his death was a much beloved and respected president.

In many ways, the election of 1924 really began the day that Harding died.  And one of the aspects of Coolidge’s career that I think is probably overplayed, but is certainly mentioned from time to time, is something some historians have called the “Coolidge luck”.  Coolidge did seem to have some luck at being at the right place in the right time.  

It was fortuitous that Vice President and Mrs. Coolidge were up on the family farm in Vermont when news came that Harding had died.  And as we’ve seen earlier this morning in the film, he was summoned in the middle of the night and informed that the president had died.  He got up, dressed as he always did, knelt down very briefly, said a short prayer, stood up, headed down the steps and made the comment to Grace Coolidge, ‘I think I can swing it.’  Then was sworn in by his father, who was the justice of the peace.  Well, that picture that we saw this morning in the film of the swearing in by lamplight was shown all over the country and the American public had that seared into their consciousness.  And it was a very visual, graphic representation of who Calvin Coolidge was, where he had come from, what kind of man he was.   It was a background that most Americans at that time could relate to.  The country was much more rural than it is today.  And it was an extremely effective and fortunate way for him to begin his presidency.

The result was that the rapport between Coolidge and the American people was immediate.  The country in the 1920s was beginning to experience a lot of anxiety.  In some ways we were entering what we would call the modern age.  There were changes in morays and social structures, while technology was advancing rapidly.  This scene of Coolidge being sworn in, the idea that he was from rural Vermont, and that he was a very plain, unpretentious man, were warmly reassuring to the American public.

As the details of some of the Harding scandals began to break in the months immediately after Coolidge was sworn in, the public could fall back, first of all, on that picture of him being sworn in, and then the knowledge that the new president was really a morally incorruptible New Englander.  Certainly, the Democrats, as they approached the 1924 election were very much encouraged to think that the scandals that were coming out from the Harding administration were going to be a tough obstacle for the Republicans to overcome in the election, but the fact that Coolidge was now the president of the country changed the picture totally.  The Democrats found that it was almost unpatriotic to claim that the Republicans were corrupt because Coolidge was now the president and was so obviously not corrupt.

When Coolidge assumed the presidency from Harding, he had less than a year before the convention, and his political future was not at all certain.  The first problem he had was the scandals, which we’ve just talked about.  He had to decide how he was going to deal with that – could he overcome those?

The second problem he had was the Republican progressives.  Several speakers have alluded to the fact that coming up to the election of 1924, both parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, each had rival factions within their parties that were very strong, both conservative and progressive.  And, as you think back, it had only been twelve years before in 1912, an election that’s often referred to as the high tide of progressivism, when Woodrow Wilson ran as a strong progressive, Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party to run as an even more aggressive progressive.  And then President Taft, who was the Republican, tried very hard to sound as progressive as he could.  So you really had three progressives running in 1912.

Throughout the Woodrow Wilson era and into the twenties, it was not at all clear which party was going to be the conservative party,  and which party was going to be the progressive party.  Each had strong wings and there was a real civil war, if you will, within each party.  There was a very substantial progressive wing in the Republican Party that did not like Harding, and they didn’t like Coolidge, and when Harding died they were anxious to reclaim the Republican Party.  So Coolidge had to deal with that.

Then there were some very divisive issues around in 1924, a couple of which sound a bit strange to us today, looking back, but one of them was the Ku Klux Klan.  It was mentioned today that the Klan was a very powerful force, not just in the South, but all over the country.  There were a number of midwestern, and even a couple of northern states, where the Klan was a very potent factor.  And then the other issue was Prohibition.  These were hot button issues that were very divisive. 

And Coolidge, somehow, as he looked out in 1923, had to  pull his party together, come up with something that was cohesive, get the American people to understand who he was, to trust him, and be ready to go into the election.  There are a number of editorials; Walter Lippmann wrote an editorial in the fall of 1923 predicting that the Democrats would probably win in ’24.  He thought that it was going to be impossible for Coolidge to pull everything together.

But, it was in this period, late 1923, early 1924, that you could clearly see what a proficient politician Coolidge really was.  It was no small accomplishment for him to emerge from the shadow of Harding, to consolidate his hold on the GOP, both conservatives and progressives, to separate himself from the scandals and to gain the nomination, virtually unanimously, the next summer.  But that’s exactly what he did in less than a year.

When the GOP gathered in Cleveland in June of 1924, Coolidge had by that time convincingly united his party.  The result was a convention in Cleveland that has been widely heralded as the most boring convention in America history.  Will Rogers made one of his famous quips during that.  He said all of his life he had hoped to go to an exciting political convention and then it was his luck to go to the one in Cleveland first.  He said it was the dullest thing he ever went to.  And this was, of course, exactly what the Coolidge managers wanted.  There was virtually no dissention.  Senator La Follette, who was the leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, tried to have a fight over the platform.  He was roundly rebuffed, figured out that he had no future that year in the Republic Party, decided to leave and run as a Progressive.  But almost no Republican progressives left with him.    Coolidge really had his hand on the party.

Similarly, the convention somehow sidestepped the hot button issues, put out a very platitudinous platform, and then, without any dissention whatsoever, nominated Calvin Coolidge.  In the nominating speech for Coolidge, probably the most memorable line was Coolidge was introduced to the convention as the man who never wastes any time, never wastes any words and certainly never wastes any taxpayer’s money.  I think that’s the sound bite that came through, that’s really what he had decided to campaign on – who he was as a person, and economy in government

Now if you compare the Cleveland convention to the Democratic Convention in 1924, it’s really quite a contrast.  The Democrats were certainly not nearly so fortunate as the Republicans, and it was the most divisive convention in American history.  They were scheduled to meet for ten days and they wound up meeting for three weeks in New York City.  This was pre-air conditioning, in early July.  It was a deadlock convention.  They went for a hundred and three ballots and, finally, in an exhausted state, staggered to the end of the convention and nominated a very good candidate, John W. Davis.  But by that time the nomination was pretty worthless.  The Democrats were so divided that there was no hope that they were going to run a united campaign.  It was, again, maybe Coolidge’s luck.  But if it was luck, he certainly took full advantage of it in the way he ran the campaign from that point on.

There was no question that the campaign of 1924 was going to be about the fiscal policies of Harding and Mellon and, now, Coolidge.  And with the nomination of John Davis by the Democrats, interestingly, there was very little difference between Coolidge and Davis.  Davis was a very conservative Democrat.  His views on private property, limited government, lower taxes were totally in sync with Coolidge and Mellon.  So there really was very little debate between the two of them. 

The wild card in the election was La Follette, who had bolted the Republican Party.  He was able to get a prominent Democratic senator to run with him as vice president.  They were out on the campaign trail keeping the progressive movement alive and there was some real thought at the beginning of the campaign that they would be successful enough to throw the election into the House of Representatives, in which case no one could predict what would happen.  But as the campaign developed, La Follette faded.  He wound up getting, for a third party candidate, a good sized vote, but was not decisive.  Coolidge had a strengthening economy.  He had a united party.  He faced a very fractured Democratic Party.  And he had a personality that he was able to communicate with the American people, and it was resonating with the American people.

A side note on the campaign, it was, arguably, the first American campaign in which technology played a role.  The radio was developed in the early twenties and by 1924 there was a network of radio stations that could carry a speech all over the country, and this played very much to Coolidge’s advantage.  Coolidge was not a very good speaker in public.  In fact, Governor Dukakis was talking about Governor McCall, who was the Republican progressive who ran for governor when Coolidge ran for lieutenant governor, and McCall was a very expansive, exuberant speaker.  The saying around Massachusetts was that McCall could fill up any hall in the state and Coolidge could empty it.  I don’t know whether Coolidge was really that bad in person, but that was the picture that was painted. 

But, surprisingly for someone who was not a rousing speaker in public, he had a very good radio voice.  His voice carried by radio and this fit his preference for not doing a lot of barnstorming-type campaigning.  The Republicans raised a lot of money in 1924, so they invested it in radio time and broadcast, I think it was, four major addresses which were carried all over the country.  So he really got his message out but without the hassle of having to campaign.

Davis, who didn’t raise much money, went on a whistle-stop campaign and went all over the Midwest in an exhausting exercise.  But Coolidge was able to reach a lot more people and he did it with the new technology of radio.

If you were going to summarize Coolidge’s campaign strategy, I think there are probably four or five points that are very apparent.  Number one, he wanted to be presidential.  I think this is both an indication of his personality and also smart politics.  Coolidge was personally repulsed, I think, is probably not too strong a word, by the informality of the Harding administration.  He thought the parties and the sort of looseness in the White House was not presidential, and he, when he came into the White House, set a very different tone.  Also, this was good politics because anything he could do to separate himself from what was coming out in the public about the Harding administration was a good thing.  So he, first of all, was determined to set up a presidential format for the campaign.  And, as I think Governor Dukakis mentioned, Coolidge in all his years of running in Massachusetts had never attacked his opponent.  He didn’t believe in personal attacks.  So he set a very high level and, to his credit, Davis did the same thing as the Democrat.  So the tone of the 1924 campaign was at a very high level.

Coolidge’s second strategy was simply to ignore Davis and La Follette.  Davis had a very hard time in the campaign.  First of all, his views were not too different from Coolidge’s, so there wasn’t a lot for him to engage there, and he tried on countless occasions to engage Coolidge in some kind of debate.  Coolidge just refused to be drawn out.  Probably Davis’s most famous speech was entitled “Say Something”, with “Something” underlined, and he was just pleading with Coolidge to say something so the public could react to it.  But Coolidge stayed very quiet during the campaign. 

And, on the other hand, La Follette was going around the country.  He’d been likened more to a volcano.  In fact, Coolidge was likened to a mummy and La Follette to a volcano, and Davis was in between trying to figure out how to run a campaign between those two.

The third strategic decision was the Republicans decided to nominate Charles Dawes for vice president, to put him out on the stump and let him go around and whip up the GOP faithful. It turned out Dawes loved that job.  He enjoyed doing it, and did a good job at getting the GOP pretty excited.

The fourth strategic point was Coolidge had a very good sense, I think, of not being overexposed.  He made four major speeches during the campaign that were separated by at least a week or ten days, and each focused very much on a major issue.  It was part of his image of being presidential, but he was able to communicate his ideas, which were primarily lowering taxes and cutting government expenditures.  He was able to get those across by having a limited schedule of speeches but putting them on the radio and getting them out to the people.

And then the fifth strategic point, and probably the most important one, was Coolidge’s managers were smart enough to let Coolidge be Coolidge.  The public was, sort of, unaccountably fascinated by all of his nonpolitical attributes – the fact that he didn’t back slap, he didn’t kiss any babies, he didn’t whistle-stop.  The stories that circulated about what Coolidge said about the minister and sin (he was against it) and those sorts of stories  people just seemed to think were great.  So that worked very much to his advantage. 

I think when you look back over the campaign, you would have to say that there’s no question that Coolidge was dealt a winning hand.  There probably was no doubt by the fall of 1924 that he was going to win.  But, it was about as well run and flawlessly waged a campaign as you’ll ever see.  Again, I think this is back to what Governor Dukakis was saying, Coolidge was just a very good politician in a practical sense.

The result of the 1924 election was a landslide for Coolidge.  In a three way race, he won well over fifty percent of the vote.  Davis got around thirty percent, which was the lowest percentage that a Democratic candidate has ever gotten.  La Follette had the balance, which was around sixteen or seventeen percent. 

In retrospect, and this ties in with the book that Joan alluded to when she introduced me, the 1924 election can be called the “high tide of American conservatism.”  From this perspective, it was the last time that both major parties nominated a conservative.  Up until 1924, each of the two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, were vying internally to see whether the conservative wing or the progressive wing would come out on top.  I guess it’s a little hard for us to imagine because we’ve lived now for eighty-five years since this election, but it was not foreordained that the Republican Party was going to be the conservative party and the Democratic Party was going to be the liberal party.   The Republicans elected the first progressive president in Teddy Roosevelt, and the Democrats nominated the first progressive with William Jennings Bryan.  So they both had a very strong progressive faction.  It just so happened that in 1924, Coolidge solidified his base in the Republican Party, and Coolidge was a conservative, and Davis won the nomination in the Democratic Party, and he was a conservative. 

What happened in 1924, I think, set the parties on the path that we recognize today.  Coolidge won a huge victory, which solidified the conservatives in the Republican Party.  And the lesson the Democrats learned, there’s an excellent quote from Franklin Roosevelt right after the 1924 election saying ‘well, never again, this is hopeless, we’ll never be able to be more conservative than the Republicans, we’ve got to go the other direction.’  And I think that’s clearly what’s happened.  You can look back and see it.  The fact that the Republican Party has been the conservative party can be traced back to the fact that Calvin Coolidge was a very good politician.  He cemented his hold on the party, won a big victory.  The progressives in the Republican Party generally left and went over to the Democrats and after 1924 the conservatives gradually moved over to the Republican Party.  In fact, John Davis lived into the mid-fifties and wound up  Republican presidential candidates from 1936 onward.  So, in that sense, it was a real watershed election and a major victory, certainly a personal victory, for Calvin Coolidge.

In closing, I want to ask you to consider something.  This question has been posed several times this morning and I’ve had the same question.  I don’t have the answer, but I’ve got Walter Lippmann’s answer, which I think is maybe as good a one as I’ve seen.  But the question is this.  How could such a seemingly simple man as Calvin Coolidge, who adhered so closely to old fashioned virtues and conservative, Jeffersonian government, how could this man have captured the respect, admiration and even affection of the American public as America entered the modern era? 

That’s a very interesting question, and here’s what Lippmann wrote.  After pondering the Coolidge phenomenon for eight years, Walter Lippmann finally concluded at the end of Coolidge’s tenure that “Americans feel, I think, that they are stern, ascetic and devoted to plain living because they vote for a man who is.  Thus we have attained a Puritanism de luxe in which it is possible to praise the classic virtues, while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.”  I think that’s maybe a pretty good explanation.

Finally, I would just say this.  Coolidge, during his lifetime and, certainly, since his death, has been consistently underestimated and often ignored as a president and as a politician.  He was not only an exemplary public servant, an honest and upright man of unswerving conviction, but he was also an amazingly effective politician.  May we be so fortunate as to have others like him in the future.

Thank you.The 1924 Election—A Landslide Victory for Coolidge