Essays, Papers & Addresses

From the Legislature to the Corner Office: An Assessment of Coolidge’s Performance as a Massachusetts Political Leader

by Michael S. Dukakis ©1998

Michael S. Dukakis, like Calvin Coolidge, served Massachusetts in the legislature and as governor before winning his party’s presidential nomination. He has been a professor of political science at Northeastern University since leaving public office and is widely recognized as an excellent and dedicated teacher.

Calvin Coolidge served almost continually in public or political office from 1897 to 1929. He ran for office nineteen times, and he won seventeen of those contests.

He started in politics as a member of his local Republican Ward Committee. In 1898 he was elected to the Northampton City Council and served on the council for a single one-year term. He then was elected and reelected by his fellow councilors to the job of city solicitor but lost a third term for that office. He took over the chairmanship of the Northampton Republican City Committee and worked hard at the job of leading his local party organization. He lost a campaign for school committee in 1905 but won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1906 and again in 1907, leaving the House at that point because of the custom at the time that one served only two one-year terms.

He returned to Northampton, ran successfully for mayor twice, and then won the first of four terms to the State Senate where he began to demonstrate some of the remarkable political and leadership skills that ultimately vaulted him into the comer office at the State House. In fact, he himself often said that it was during his second term as a state senator that he first came into his own as a major force in Massachusetts politics. (Donald McCoy, Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President, 1967, p. 53)

In short Calvin Coolidge was no dummy politically. In fact, what emerges in his early political years is a growing and increasingly impressive ability to make the right political moves at the right time. It is true that he often said, and believed, that if a politician did his job and did it well, the next office would come to him. But the way Coolidge developed his strategy for capturing the Senate presidency reflects a good deal more than the notion that virtue is its own reward. Given the custom of serving two legislative terms and no more, Coolidge by rights should have stepped down after two one-year terms in the Senate. He realized, however, that the Senate Presidency might open up because the then Senate President Levi Greenwood had begun to campaign for lieutenant-governor. Largely on the strength of that fact and the possibility that Coolidge had a good shot at succeeding him, Northampton Republicans gave Coolidge their blessing for a third term. Greenwood then changed his mind and decided he would run for the Senate again. Unlike Coolidge, however, Greenwood was opposed to women’s suffrage and was defeated when the sufrragettes took him on in his own district and beat him.

Coolidge was reelected in his own district by a very comfortable margin. He was in Boston the next day; and in less than a week had lined up all the votes he needed to lock up the Senate’s top job. He not only got commitments from the twenty-one Republicans in the upper chamber. Remarkably, he had the votes of ten Democrats as well.

The rest, as they say, is history. With the Democrat David I. Walsh in the governor’s office and the Democrats having taken control of the House, Coolidge for all intents and purposes became the state’s leading State House Republican. He was reelected for a fourth term to the State Senate in 1914 by his biggest majority; won the Senate Presidency by a unanimous vote; and became Samuel McCall’s running mate on the Republican ticket for governor and lieutenant-governor in 1915. McCall barely squeaked by Walsh with a margin of 6000 votes out of nearly half a million cast but Coolidge won easily with a majority of over fifty thousand, and he rolled up even bigger majorities in the two subsequent McCall-Coolidge campaigns. In fact, in 1917, in his third campaign for lieutenant-governor, Coolidge came within a mere 2,500 votes of carrying Democratic Boston.

While his first campaign for governor in 1918 against Richard Long, a Framingham shoe manufacturer, was closer than he and his supporters expected, he beat Long a second time in 1919 by well over a hundred thousand votes and beat him in all but three of the state’s cities. Twenty years after he had first entered local politics in Northampton, he had become the state’s most popular political leader.

While his first campaign for governor in 1918 against Richard Long, a Framingham shoe manufacturer, was closer than he and his supporters expected, he beat Long a second time in 1919 by well over a hundred thousand votes and beat him in all but three of the state’s cities. Twenty years after he had first entered local politics in Northampton, he had become the state’s most popular political leader.

How had he done it? How did this man whom history portrays as shy, cold, silent, and insensitive turn himself into a political power in a state driven by economic and ethnic conflict, the pressures and burdens of the Great War, and the rising tide of a largely immigrant-based and increasingly powerful Democratic party that had already elected Walsh as governor and Curley as Boston’s mayor; a state that had elected more than a few Progressives and Socialists to important political offices and hardly seemed like a congenial political environment for a transplanted Vermonter with a political base in the least populated part of the state?

It wasn’t an accident. There are, to be sure, candidates who vault into major political office without having “paid their dues.” But any of us who have had the experience of making the long climb from minor local office to the governor’s desk in the southwest comer of the State House fully understand the value of the kind of knowledge, understanding and experience that beginning at the bottom brings with it.

Coolidge didn’t just put his name on the ballot and leave it to the voters to make the decision. He campaigned, and he campaigned hard. He believed in the party system and party loyalty. He was a delegate to Republican state conventions, beginning in 1898, and he played an increasingly important role in those conventions.

But he also reached out to independents and Democrats. He knocked on a lot of doors in the Irish precincts of Northampton. He sought out the leaders of organized labor and won their support He carried that support into the legislature where he developed remarkably close relationships with his Irish Democratic colleagues. “Calvin Coolidge,” said Jim Timilty, the Democratic boss of Roxbury and a colleague of Coolidge’s in the Senate, “can have anything he wants from me … Cal’s my kind of guy.” (quoted in Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma, 1998, p. 137)

When Coolidge began to run for statewide office, he never forgot the lessons he had learned in winning local office at the grassroots. While not a gifted speaker, he campaigned hard and often and was known to deliver as many as fifteen speeches a day in his first run for lieutenant-governor. He abhorred negative campaigning, and it nearly beat him in his first race for the governorship when Long went after him with a tough and slashing campaign. But he never responded and rarely if ever mentioned his opponent’s name. What he would have done in an age of thirty-second TV attack ads is anybody’s guess, but at least part of his appeal to voters was his refusal to get down in the gutter with those who opposed him.

When Coolidge began to run for statewide office, he never forgot the lessons he had learned in winning local office at the grassroots. While not a gifted speaker, he campaigned hard and often and was known to deliver as many as fifteen speeches a day in his first run for lieutenant-governor. He abhorred negative campaigning, and it nearly beat him in his first race for the governorship when Long went after him with a tough and slashing campaign. But he never responded and rarely if ever mentioned his opponent’s name. What he would have done in an age of thirty-second TV attack ads is anybody’s guess, but at least part of his appeal to voters was his refusal to get down in the gutter with those who opposed him.

He campaigned as simply as he lived. There was no limousine, no hangers on. In fact, he and I may be the only two governors who used public transportation regularly. One night when he was governor, there was a big reception for returning veterans at a theater in Codman Square in Dorchester. The Governor and his entourage were expected momentarily, and a large group of dignitaries and officials were eagerly awaiting Coolidge’s arrival in front of the theater when a member of the welcoming party spied a man in the lobby quietly looking at some art work that hung on the walls. “Why Governor,” the man said, “does the Committee know you are here?” “No,” said the Governor, “they probably will find me. Thought I’d take the night off. so I came out on the street car.” In fact, Coolidge didn’t own a car until he became Vice-President.

When you come up from the bottom, as Coolidge did, and you fight your way. campaign by campaign, from office to office, and when you serve for an extended period of time in both city and state legislative bodies, it should, and often does, make you a far better political leader. For one thing, you learn a lot on those doorsteps and in those flats. “Only the man of broad and deep understanding of his fellow man can meet with much success in politics,” Coolidge once said (quoted in William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon, 1938, p. 47), and I suspect a lot of that understanding developed during the course of Coolidge’s early years of politicking in the Irish precincts of Northampton and in both houses of the Legislature.

You also win a lot of friends and a great deal of loyalty, particularly with the rank and file who do the work in your own party. Coolidge really worked at his party chores. He not only attended party conventions; he served on important convention committees. He worked hard to mend the Progressive-Republican rift, and he was unfailingly loyal to Governor McCall as his lieutenant-governor even though in those days the lieutenant governor was elected independently of the Governor, and Coolidge rolled up victory margins far greater than McCall’s. He was urged by some to challenge McCall for a third term, and he refused to do it. Small wonder, then, that McCall let him know early that his third term would be his last one and urged him to run. He did, of course, and he had no opposition in his party primary.

But his popularity increasingly extended beyond rank and file Republicans. Part of that dates from his work in his own district. Much of it, however, undoubtedly developed out of long and continued exposure to the electorate generally, literally hundreds of speeches in his statewide campaigns, and a sense on the part of average working citizens and their families that Coolidge was honest, decent, and understood and cared about them. He was, after all, a man who came from modest means and never forgot it, and people sensed that about him.

How one reconciles Coolidge the campaigner with the painfully shy boy and man that he himself described I will leave to others at this conference. Take it from me, however: you don’t campaign the way Coolidge campaigned unless you like people, enjoy the political process, and believe deeply in what you are doing. Was the Coolidge of Massachusetts politics a different man from the one that ultimately occupied the Oval Office? I strongly suspect so, and my colleague Bob Gilbert has suggested some intriguing reasons for the change.

But the Coolidge of his Massachusetts years demonstrated formidable people and political skills that took him from Ward 2 in Northampton to the governor’s office with remarkably broad-based popular support You can’t develop that kind of loyalty without the kind of intensive work and grassroots effort that is evident throughout Coolidge’s Massachusetts political career.

His political philosophy and the issues he championed undoubtedly added much to that kind of public support. Coolidge was no socialist. But he was no moss-backed reactionary either. His political philosophy and the issues he championed were powerfully influenced by the Progressive movement of his time. In fact, he himself argued that no political party in America could remain viable “that wasn’t progressive.” (quoted in Sobel, p.63) He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and the direct election of U.S. Senators. He was a “wet’ at the time when many Republicans were “dry.” He had a reputation for “championing the rights of the Negro.” (Claude Fuess, Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont, 1940, p. 164)

When he first arrived in the Massachusetts House, he may, as Martin Lomasney, the Democratic boss of Boston’s West End remarked, have looked like a schoolteacher or an undertaker, but he viewed himself as something of a radical. In fact, his colleague from Western Massachusetts, Roland Sawyer, described him as being “uncomfortably progressive for some of his constituents in Northampton.” (quoted in Sobel, p. 62) In his early years in the legislature, he fought for labor’s right to strike and for limits on the power of the courts to issue labor injunctions. He was a champion of legislation to curb the power of Standard Oil to drive its competitors out of business. “You forbid a labor union to injure a man’s business,” he said, “but a giant corporation can do exactly the same thing.” (quoted in Sobel, pp. 68-69) He supported the six-day work week, maximum hours legislation for women and children, worker’s compensation, the minimum wage, pensions for firefighters and their families, and a state income tax.

He chaired the resolutions committee at the 1914 Republican Convention that produced an unabashedly liberal platform that endorsed wage and hour legislation, health and safety laws in the workplace, old age pensions and aid to dependent mothers, city planning, investments in hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill and retarded, and reforms in the criminal justice system like probation and parole.

As Lieutenant-Governor, he lambasted the Democrats for cutting appropriations for the state’s mental hospitals. “Our party,” he said, “will have no part in a scheme of economy which adds to the misery of the wards of the commonwealth–the sick, the insane and the unfortunate–those who are too weak even to protest.” And while his frugality and abhorrence of waste were legendary, he was no anti-taxer. “Because I know these conditions,” he said, “I know a Republican administration would face an increasing state tax rather than not see them remedied.” (quoted in Sobel, pp. 106-107) When Governor McCall called for comprehensive health insurance in 1917, his lieutenant-governor supported him.

Labor unions trusted and liked him. He was asked to mediate the IWW strike in Lawrence in 1913. He accepted the assignment and forced reluctant textile mill owners to increase workers’ wages by twenty-five percent to settle the strike.

Nor did he seem to be moderating his views as he took over the governor’s office in 1919. He asked for an increase in teacher salaries. He proposed and signed legislation imposing limits on a landlord’s right to raise rents in the immediate post World War period. He wanted medical care for the indigent and a forty-eight hour work week, the latter over the strong opposition of the textile industry. He even proposed legislation authorizing employee representation on corporate boards, a radical proposal by any standard, particularly in those years.

Moreover, nobody ever questioned Coolidge’s integrity. One of his greatest challenges, for example was implementing the constitutional reforms of the 1917-1918 Constitutional Convention that called for the consolidation of hundreds of state boards and commissions into no more than twenty departments. Carrying out that constitutional mandate required Coolidge to eliminate dozens of jobs held by favored members of his own party. He later said that it was the toughest challenge he ever faced as governor, tougher even than the Boston police strike, but he did it, and his choices for the newly created department heads were unanimously approved by the Governor’s Council and were generally applauded for their competence and independence. (McCoy, pp. 80-81)

Coolidge’s commitment to progressive values may not have been altogether altruistic. Massachusetts was a heavily immigrant and industrial state. Unions were beginning to flex their muscles, and he had strong ties to them. True, he carried a commitment to traditional values and economy in government into the State House, and he never strayed from them. But he saw the kinds of broad social and economic reforms that he supported as a means to self sufficiency and independence so as “to breed not mendicants but men.” (Fuess, p. 144)

As one biographer put it, “by nature he was no aristocrat; indeed, his sympathies were for the majority of people who have to toil hard for a living. On the other hand, he had no patience with agitators or revolutionists. His liberalism did not lead him to favor violent protests. Instinctively, he preferred orderly, gradual change and peaceful evolution.” (Fuess, p. 126)

Nor do his actions in the Boston police strike represent a reversal of his approach to government in the Commonwealth. He valued his relationship with organized labor and was reluctant to move against the police union if there was some possibility of settlement. In the end, he did what any governor would have done under the circumstances, and at the time, he thought it probably meant the end of his political career. In one of history’s great ironies, it not only won him a huge majority in his final campaign for governor; it was directly responsible for his selection as the Republican nominee for the Vice-Presidency and his ultimate ascension to the Presidency.

What happened to Calvin Coolidge in Washington? I have my own theory, based not so much on my research as on my own experience as both governor and a candidate for the Presidency whose political career paralleled Coolidge’s to a remarkable degree.

Don’t get me wrong. There were and are enormous differences between the two of us in many, many ways. Coolidge was a child of many generations of Vermonters; I, the son of Greek immigrants. He grew up in the hills of the Green Mountain state. I grew up in suburban Boston and spent a lot of my boyhood in the heavily immigrant mill cities of Haverhill and Lowell where my parents and their families had settled after they emigrated from Greece and Turkey. I’m a liberal Democrat; Coolidge a progressive Republican but a progressive who was increasingly concerned about the amount and pace of legislation and regulation and the ability of the Commonwealth to absorb and implement them.

But there are striking similarities as well, above and beyond our commitment to the street car. We both started our political careers in local office–he in the Northampton City Council and I as a member of the Brookline representative town meeting. We both chaired our respective local party committees at a relatively young age. We were both practicing lawyers who enjoyed public service a lot more than we did the practice of law. I spent eight years in the state legislature; he was there for six, and while he achieved far more prominence in legislative leadership that I did, we both had reputations for being pretty effective legislators.

We both ran for lieutenant-governor. He and Sam McCall won while Kevin White and I lost, but we both had the opportunity to run statewide at that level before taking a shot at the governorship. He served two terms as governor, both for one year, while I served three four year terms, but I don’t think there is any question that he could have won another term or two and would probably have been the first two-year governor in the state’s history if he hadn’t gone to Washington.

Both of us rang a lot of doorbells in our local and legislative districts, and both of us campaigned hard for statewide office. While I think Kitty exaggerates my frugality–the first Greek word she ever learned was the Greek for stingy– there is no question that both Coolidge and Dukakis abhorred waste and spent very little money on themselves. And I’d like to think that both of us had reputations for integrity in our public and personal life.

Both of us rang a lot of doorbells in our local and legislative districts, and both of us campaigned hard for statewide office. While I think Kitty exaggerates my frugality–the first Greek word she ever learned was the Greek for stingy– there is no question that both Coolidge and Dukakis abhorred waste and spent very little money on themselves. And I’d like to think that both of us had reputations for integrity in our public and personal life.

What is even more striking is the way in which we built our political base in the Commonwealt–starting locally, gradually expanding to larger and larger constituencies, working hard and long hours in our parties as both foot soldiers and party leaders, and campaigning intensively and continuously at the grassroots, whatever office we were seeking.

That kind of political career and approach to politics requires commitment and energy, but it also does something else. It begins to build a bond between you and the people you represent which can be deep and strong and is based less on glitz and one’s speech making ability and more on a perception that you care about ordinary citizens, try to do your job in political life honestly and effectively, and are willing to stand up for the little guy.

That, it seems to me, was the reason Calvin Coolidge became one of the most popular and respected political figures of his time in the Commonwealth and why he was respected by Democrats and independents and union leaders who would normally not be supporting a Republican from western Massachusetts. He had an obvious command of his job which developed over years of service at every level of politics in Massachusetts. His remarkable ability to pull off the reorganization of the state’s government in 1919, even though it meant disappoiinting dozens of party regulars and office holders who probably thought they deserved better from a governor of their own party, is just one example of the skill and confidence that he brought to the governor’s office.

Trying to take those skills and that confidence and apply them to the job of running for and winning the Presidency is a whole other matter, however. I discovered that in a big way in 1988. Although Coolidge made it into national office without a full fledged national campaign through his convention nomination for vice-president it is hard to come away from a reading of the history of his White House years without a sense that he had to struggle to take command of the presidency, although it had come naturally to him as governor.

That does not mean that the skills one develops as governor are not helpful when one campaigns for and/or serves in the presidency. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are both testimonials to that fact. It is hard to exaggerate, however, how different and more difficult it is to achieve the kind of mastery of the process and the job that Coolidge had as governor when one is suddenly transported into the most important political office in the world. There was never the comfort level in the White House that he had in the corner office. His relationship with the Congress does not seem to have been anywhere near as close and mutually reinforcing as the one he had with the Great and General Court. He seems to have been a relatively fulfilled man in the State House. One never gets that impression about him in the White House.

I offer these concluding thoughts based less on original research than as the reflections of one who many years later embarked on a political career that in so many respects seems to parallel Coolidge’s, and I recognize that there are people at this conference that know a lot more about Calvin Coolidge than I do who may disagree with these views. It is also true that one’s popularity as a political figure is a fragile thing. I took a pretty tough pounding in my last two yews as governor as the Massachusetts Miracle seemed to dissolve before our very eyes. The Great Depression left most Massachusetts citizens with a very different view of Calvin Coolidge from the one they had when he was a legislative leader and governor. The reality is, however, that he was a dominant State Senate President and a popular, effective, and progressive governor during his State House years, and history should recognize that fact.

Moreover, his definition of the public interest still stands as one of the most eloquent ever delivered under the State House dome.

“The Commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish. Transportation cannot prosper if manufactures decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the neglect of all…..

Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a standpatter, but don’t be a standpatter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue…

We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people–a faith that men desire to do right, that the Commonwealth is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconstructed faith that the fmal approval of the people is given not to demagogues, slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandising with the clamor of the hour, but to statesmen, ministering to their welfare, and representing their deep, silent, [and] abiding convictions.” (quoted inMcCoy, pp. 54-55.)