Thoughts On Calvin Coolidge: Politician and Office Holder
by Jerry L. Wallace
August 31, 2007
Jerry L. Wallace is a Coolidge scholar, whose interest in Calvin Coolidge and the 1920s dates back over half a century. He has been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972 and has served as a Trustee and is now a member of the National Advisory Board. He has written extensively on Coolidge, with his latest publication being Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President. By profession, he is an historian and archivist, formerly with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. Now retired and living in Oxford, KS, he spends his time researching and writing on Coolidge and local Kansas history.
There was no artifice about him, no pretense, and no sham.
Through and through he was genuine.
–Calvin Coolidge on Ulysses S. Grant
Dedication of the Grant Memorial
Washington, DC, April 22, 1922
Regardless of the political office he held at the moment, Calvin Coolidge never lost sight of himself as a private citizen — Mr. Coolidge — who would one day return to his hometown to live among his friends and neighbors. In short, unlike so many of his colleagues, he never became addicted to the political world about him and its peculiar life style. This ability to walk away from it all, so to speak, had its advantages. Throughout his political career, it gave him a certain degree of independence in approaching the issues of the day and permitted him, when he believed it necessary, to take difficult, unpopular stands. Notably, in the Summer of 1927, it allowed him to do the unheard of: renouncing another Presidential term by choosing not to run again in 1928. Then, when his work in Washington was done, he put aside the power and the glory of the Presidency, packed his grip, and return without regret to Northampton and his duplex home, where he was again one with the people.
He insisted on respect for the office he held. Even when they dined alone in the State dining room of the White House, the President and the First Lady dressed formally; and if a family member was to join them, as son John once learned, he, too, was expected to dress for the occasion as he dined with the President of the United States. On the other hand, on his birthday, as Mr. Coolidge rather than Mr. President, he could dress up in cowboy gear, a gift to him from Boy Scouts, and, as he said, give the folks a laugh. After his retirement from politics, he rejected employment offers from companies wanting to exploit his status as a former President rather than hiring him for what he had to offer. He eventually became a director of the New York Life Insurance Company, which suited him well, as he was a strong exponent of life insurance for the prudent protection it offered young families and the savings it accumulated for old age.
In his long political career — beginning on December 6, 1898, with his election to the Northampton City Council, and ending with his retirement from the Presidency on March 4, 1929 — Mr. Coolidge was a politician very much in tune with his times. No stiff ideologue was he. He had a sympathetic and understanding view of people and their concerns and needs. Within the confines of his moderate conservative philosophy, he was flexible and accommodative. This is best seen in his many years in politics in Massachusetts, then a leading industrial State noted for its progressive spirit. Here, he stands out as an engaged, constructive, forward-looking official. The following is taken from his inaugural address as Governor, January 2, 1919: “Let there be a purpose in all your legislation to recognize the right of man to be well born, well nurtured, well educated, well employed and well paid.”
As President, Mr. Coolidge found Washington to be a different world with different demands than Boston. Presiding over the Federal establishment, governed by the Constitution, he was responsible for fulfilling the commitments made to the people in the 1920 and 1924 Republican campaigns. Consequently, his Administration emphasized policies returning the Federal government to a peacetime basis, stimulating economic growth and development, and on the international front, assisting Europe to recover from the trauma of the Great War and encouraging efforts for world peace. His domestic fiscal priorities often put him in the role of restraining government growth — a Horatio at the Gate — which he did by fully exercising the new powers given him under the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. To put it bluntly, it was the kind of government that emphasized “making every dollar sweat,” as his Budget Director put it so well.
While popular with the public for the deficit reductions, tax cuts, and economic growth it brought, the President’s program of constructive economy made him few friends among Washington’s politicos and bureaucrats. Indeed, bureaucrats, with their narrow focus on agency initiatives, complained about the lack of funding for what they perceived to be their worthy projects. The old line Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson progressives, who favored an activist and expanding Federal government, were disillusioned too by the President’s tight-fisted, minimalist approach to governing. They joined with those who, seeing Coolidge as Bay State interloper, never accepted him into Washington’s official circles. In implementing his program, the President bypassed such opponents and malcontents by skillfully using the new technology of radio to go directly to the people and garner their support. He also was careful to maintain good relations with newspaper reporters and their associates, the photographers and newsreel men.
President Coolidge gave the American people, as Will Rogers observed, the kind of government they wanted; that is, honest, efficient, economical, and pro-growth. It was also a government that with the exception of Prohibition enforcement, minded its own business, leaving citizens free to follow their own light. At the end of his Presidency, he retired more popular than when he entered office — an honor few Presidents hold (Ronald Reagan, a Coolidge admirer, being another) — and if he had so chosen, the American people would have gladly rewarded him with another Presidential term. One test of a successful politician in a democracy is giving the people the government they want. In this, Mr. Coolidge was surely a success.
Historically speaking, President Coolidge presided over a time of social and political transition in American life: the old order was passing while another was taking form. There are clear indications that he had an inkling of this. Near the end of his Presidency, Mr. Coolidge noted that perhaps the times now called for someone — he was probably thinking of Herbert Hoover — who knew how to spend money, rather than save it, like himself. Indeed, his Administration had been moving in that direction. This is seen, for instance, in the 275-million dollar plans for the Federal Triangle in Washington, which would transform the place into a modern city, as well as for new Federal buildings scattered about the country. Then, again, shortly before his death in early January 1933, and only weeks before the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he confessed to a friend that he no longer fitted in with the times. He recognized, it seems, that momentous changes were in the works. It is rare, of course, for a politician to have this understanding of his time and place and the power to recognize and accept that his moment on the political stage had come and gone.
Mr. Coolidge’s philosophy of government was based primarily on a XIXth Century point of view, harkening back to the days of Cleveland and McKinley when he was a young man. For him, the bedrock of democratic government rested at the State and local level, where citizens came together to build a pleasing democratic commonwealth. Throughout his Presidency, his theme was that what was needed was “not more Federal Government, but better local government.” In his mind, there was always before him the example of Massachusetts, one of the nation’s most impressive and progressive States early in the XXth century. Mr. Coolidge with his Massachusetts experience, looked down at times with condescension upon the Federal establishment and its ways. An example of this is seen, for instance, in his comments in his Autobiography that the Massachusetts inaugural ceremonies were “more ceremonious than the swearing-in of a President at Washington.” In the case of the latter, he “was struck by the lack of order and formality that prevailed.” (The Congress, let it be noted, was responsible for staging the inaugural ceremonies.)
On several occasions, as President, he would call on States to fulfill their governing responsibilities, rather than allow the Federal government to encroach upon their rights. Their weakening status within the Federal system troubled him deeply. He did what he could to stop this erosion of their power but, frankly, few rallied to this effort. It was almost as though no one was listening. Indeed, the States themselves when offered Federal dollars for highway building or flood control or whatever were only too eager to accept them. It should be emphasized here that the President did not view the doctrine of State rights as “a privilege to continue in wrong-doing but as a privilege to be free from interference in well-doing.”
The Great Depression and World War II would suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelm his Jeffersonian view of the primary role of State and local government. It passed into history with his generation. The generally accepted concept of a limited and distant Federal government of Mr. Coolidge’s day was replaced by “Big Government,” overseen by a President vastly more powerful and influential than he, and who served, moreover, as the leader of the free world. The American people, who once resented government involvement in their lives and work, came to accept it as a necessity of the modern world in which they lived. Mr. Coolidge, of course, could never have envisioned such sweeping and profound changes. While he would not have welcomed them, given his worldview, we can speculate that he would have accepted them. For Mr. Coolidge did recognize the people’s right in a democracy to have the kind of government they wished. The young Calvin Coolidge had learned that long ago in those Plymouth town meetings. He also knew that the world changes, bringing new demands and requiring adjustment to governmental institutions. As postwar Governor of Massachusetts, he himself had overseen many such changes. I suspect, too, that Mr. Coolidge realized, along with Jefferson, that in the end, the world belongs to the living generation.
As he climbed the political ladder, Mr. Coolidge never forgot or pushed aside those who helped him in his advancement. “A man ought to be loyal to those who have been loyal to him,” he said. This abiding loyalty to his political friends, both high and low — US Senator W. Murray Crane, his mentor, and Northampton shoemaker, Jim Lucey, also his mentor — mark him as a politician’s politician. We are told that Mr. Coolidge’s first act after sitting down at the Presidential desk was to write old Jim Lucey, telling him that he would not be at that desk without his past help. In his Autobiography, he wrote of Senator Crane, who had died in 1920, “What would I not have given to have had him by my side when I was President!” Coolidge was not a man to use the exclamation point indiscriminately, and this is the only instance of its use in his Autobiography.
When it came to doing the day’s work, Mr. Coolidge was able to identify his goals, set priorities, and then develop strategies for achieving them. As President, he had two primary goals, each aimed at encouraging economic growth: first, reducing the public debt, bloated after the Great War; and second, lowering income tax rates though reduced government spending. In both these areas, through his leadership and persistence, Mr. Coolidge was successful. The key to his success was in putting government operations on a business footing. The debt was lopped off by five and a quarter billion dollars and there were three major reductions in taxes greatly reducing or eliminating altogether taxes for most individuals. Mention should be made of tariff stability as well, for it too was a major concern of the President, who believed the tariff to be the foundation of the nation’s prosperity. Here, however, no action was required on his part, other than insisting that Congress not tamper with the existing Fordney-McCumber tariff, and Congress complied. Internationally, his Administration aimed at the restoration of European economies and the reconstruction of the international gold standards. Here, too, considerable progress was made by the end of his term. Adding another perspective on this matter, Mr. Coolidge observed, “The higher our standards [of living], the greater our progress, the more we do for the world.”
In carrying out his duties, unlike many politicians, Mr. Coolidge did not attempt to skirt unpopular or difficult issues or tasks, which could cost him politically, by ignoring them or pushing them off onto others. Rather, once they arrived at his desk, he faced up to them, showing his political skills by handling them in such a way as to avoid political damage or even turning them to his advantage. A classic example of this was his reorganization and consolidation of the Massachusetts bureaucracy as Governor from 118 departments into 18.
He also demonstrated political courage on several occasions by “saying no” to popular legislation supported by powerful special interest groups. This led TIME magazine to describe him as the “No-Man.” In May and June of the election year of 1924, for example, he vetoed the World War Soldiers’ Bonus Bill, Bursum Pension Bill for veterans and widows of wars, 1812-1904, and the Postal Salary Increase Bill, all having sizable constituencies of supporters. The press characterized them as “economy vetoes.” Rejecting the pleas of the Farm Block, he twice vetoed the McNary-Haugen Farm Bill, once in 1927 and again in 1928, another election year. In all instances, these vetoes were carried out in such away that there was no significant harm for him or his party. Following the great Mississippi flood of 1927, the Congress proposed flood control legislation creating a new bureaucracy and proposing to spend an astonishing $1.4 billion Federal dollars. Mr. Coolidge faced a dilemma. On the one hand, he found the bill totally unacceptable: “[T]he most extortionate proposal ever made upon the nation’s revenues,” he said. Yet, legislation was needed and a veto of the bill might well be disastrous for his party in the coming election in 1928. The President chose to use firm persuasion with the Congress. It worked. The result was an acceptable bill that kept spending within a reasonable limit of $500 million dollars, required State and local participation, and assigned the engineering task to the existing Army Corps of Engineers.
For Coolidge, politics was an art, and among his skills, he possessed an excellent sense of political timing. He knew when to act and when not to act, which is often key to political success and survival. He once said to Secretary of Commerce Hoover, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine of them will run into a ditch before they reach you and you have to battle with only one of them.”
Mr. Coolidge was a first rate executive, a master of picking and retaining good men and of delegating to them the day’s work. A case in point is Dwight Morrow, who he sent as ambassador to Mexico with only one instruction: “keep us out of war.” Through his good work, friendly, outgoing attitude, and the aid of Charles A. Lindbergh, Morrow did succeed in putting right our relations with Mexico. Often overlooked, the President’s appointments to the Federal judiciary were notable for their high quality. This reflected, no doubt, his profound respect as a lawyer for the law and the bench. It is of interest to recall that his one appointee to the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone, who had been his Attorney General, was later raised to Chief Justice by no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Few Presidents have used their Cabinet more effectively and successfully than Mr. Coolidge. He thought of his Cabinet secretaries as “his” and would commonly refer to them as “my Secretary of the Treasury” or “my Secretary of Commerce.” Neither Hoover nor Andrew Mellon, both men of power, public standing, and great wealth, intimidated him. In his Administration, department heads actually ran their operations and did a good job of it. There were no scandals among them on his watch. He picked qualified men and then left them alone to do their jobs. Individually, they liked and respected him, although they might differ with him on occasion. He considered himself a coordinator, not a boss. In turn, he expected them to be fully answerable for their actions. While not involving himself in the day-to-day workings of the departments, through regular Cabinet meetings and frequent individual conferences, he made certain that his Cabinet officials knew what he wanted and expected of them. They developed policies, which he sometimes modified or occasionally disapproved, and oversaw programs. An example would be the operating policies developed and put in place for the new, fast-growing radio industry by Secretary of Commerce Hoover, a challenging task that he handled well. When the press had questions concerning a department, they went to the appropriate Cabinet officer for an answer, not to the President. Mr. Coolidge’s use of his Cabinet was based not only on his managerial style of delegation but also on his concern (re-enforced, no doubt, by the Harding scandals) that the President be insulated from any departmental controversy or scandal. A Cabinet official, he pointed out, was replaceable — but the President had to stay. This approach, unfortunately, led to some historians concluding that Mr. Coolidge was not in charge. He was very much so. It was he who set the agenda and saw that it was carried through.
In sum, Calvin Coolidge was an honest, principled, and capable politician in tune with his times. As an executive, he set goals and produced results. His forte was making government worked efficiently, effectively, and economically. As a legislator and executive, he stood for policies favored by the people. They in turn rewarded him by electing and re-electing him to various posts year after year. That is the acid test for any politician. Mr. Coolidge deserves to be honored and remembered as an exemplary public servant.