How Could They Tell?
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 16 2017
Last week I wrote about speculation surrounding the death of the 29th president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding. There was also speculation about the death of Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge. Dorothy Parker was reported to have said, on being told by Robert Benchley that Coolidge was dead, “How could they tell?” I heard a different version of that story. Peter Benchley, creator of Jaws and the grandson of the Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, (Robert sent a telegram to his editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, upon arriving in Venice for the first time. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”) was speaking on Ned Sherrin’s BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends. According to him, Robert Benchley said, “Coolidge is dead”; Parker said, “How can they tell?”; Benchley responded, “He had an erection”.
The renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow dryly summed up Coolidge: “The greatest man who ever came out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont!” Coolidge had a reputation for taciturnity although some of his remarks could be interpreted as quietly witty. In that, he reminds me somewhat of Clement Attlee, although their political philosophies were totally different – Attlee was a founder of the welfare state whereas Coolidge was a small-government conservative.
Weaned on a Pickle
Coolidge was commonly referred to as “Silent Cal”. A woman once said to him, said to him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.” Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.” Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, loathed Coolidge: “When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle”.
He did have a sense of humour, albeit a somewhat infantile one. He buzzed for his bodyguards and then hid under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped.
“His ideal day,” HL Mencken wrote, “is one on which nothing whatever happens.” Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s philosophy as “Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.”
Irving Stone wrote in 1949: “Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained that desire”.
Coolidge has generally been regarded as something of a joke but some historians have tried hard to find something positive about this accidental, do-little president who rose without trace to the highest office in the USA. Some have suggested that he created his image deliberately as a campaign tactic. He himself gave some support to this theory telling Ethel Barrymore: “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President and I think I will go along with them.” “The words of a President have an enormous weight,” he would later write, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately”.
He was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings although he kept a low profile in the administration. There has been no suggestion that he was personally corrupt as were many of Harding’s cabinet. Nevertheless, he kept most of them on because he believed that, having attained the presidency because of Harding’s death in office, he was morally obliged to retain his predecessor’s appointees and policies until he won an election in his own right. Many expected that he would not be on the ballot in 1924 but he was and won convincingly.
Coolidge strongly believed that the accused were entitled to a presumption of innocence. He felt that the Senate investigation of allegations relating to the Teapot Dome scandal would suffice although he did personally intervene in demanding the resignation of Attorney General Harry MDaugherty after he refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He was methodical in seeking detailed briefing on the wrongdoing with Harry A Slattery reviewing the facts with him, Harlan F Stone analysing the legal aspects for him and Senator William E Borah assessing and presenting the political factors.
Coolidge ensured continuity with most of Harding’s policies, including immigration restrictions. Just before the Republican Convention began, Coolidge signed into law the Revenue Act of 1924, which reduced the top marginal tax rate from 58% to 46%, as well as personal income tax rates across the board. He has often been derided for saying, “The business of America is business”. What he actually said was: “It is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world”.
Coolidge is admired by those who share his belief that that America and its business will prosper if the federal government does not interfere. Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address about lynching, child labour and low wages for women but did not attempt to solve these problems. One could not imagine a person less like Donald Trump than Coolidge. However, like Trump, he followed a “foxes in charge of the hen house”” approach to government departments. The Federal Trade Commission was given a new boss, William E Humphrey, who had constantly opposed its work. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent but there were still drastic cuts. The Interior department saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928.
Some claim that his do-nothing philosophy led to the Great Depression. Historian Robert Sobel points out “As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge supported wages and hours legislation, opposed child labour, imposed economic controls during World War I, favoured safety measures in factories, and even worker representation on corporate boards. Did he support these measures while president? No, because in the 1920s, such matters were considered the responsibilities of state and local governments.”
Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bubble burst but that does not absolve him of blame. “Nero fiddled,” HL Mencken said, “but Coolidge only snored.” Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge: “As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.”
Model for Reagan?
Another historian, David Greenberg, argues that Coolidge was a model for Reagan. Like Reagan, he cut taxes, drastically reduced federal programmes and refused to compromise with striking government workers. He avoided entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. Coolidge liked to take a nap in the afternoon. Greenberg claims that Coolidge mastered radio in the same way that Reagan mastered television. To compare Silent Cal with the Great Communicator seems a bit of a stretch. A contemporary claimed that Coolidge could be silent in five languages. “If you keep dead still,” he advised Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, “they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.”
The best that can be said is that John Calvin Coolidge Jr restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of Harding’s presidency; he was very popular when he left office after deciding not to run for a second term. He told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, “It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.” Claud M Feuss wrote in his 1940 biography of Coolidge: “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength.”
Coolidge’s retirement was relatively short, as he died at the age of 60 in January 1933, less than two months before his immediate successor, Herbert Hoover, another member of the Harding administration, left office.