Skip to comments.Harding Dies — Coolidge Takes Charge
Posted on 08/02/2013 8:54:03 AM PDT by Kaslin
Ninety years ago today, on August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. It was sudden, shocking, and has been fodder for conspiracy theorists ever since. His wife, Florencedescribed derisively by some as The Duchessdidnt allow an autopsy, so well never know exactly what caused the demise of the 29th President of the United States. It might have been congestive heart failure, or food poisoning, or even something more sinister.
Seen in retrospect, through the prism of the scandals associated with his White House tenure, Harding is usually ranked well toward the bottom of the list of presidents. In reality, he was a very popular and effective leader. But he was cursed with croniesmen who ensured that his name would forever be associated with political corruption. What is sometimes forgotten about Harding is that he also had some effective public servants on his team, men such as Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover, and above all, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding.
Historians tend to bunch the three Republican presidents of the 1920s Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover together in a way suggesting they were identical triplets separated at birth. But there were many differences some subtle, some not so much.
Herbert Hoover, all of his speechifying about individualism notwithstanding, was not the fiscal conservative many today make him out to be. Mr. Hoover had a strong interventionist streak in his personality. So, in many ways, he helped to turn a recession into the Great Depression. Ironically, when closely examined, Herbert Hoovers approach to economics had more in common with his successor than it did with the two men preceding him in the White House.
What is usually missed about Harding, though, is how effective he was on the issue of the economy. When he assumed the presidency in March of 1921, he inherited a mess. Woodrow Wilson had expanded the role and size of government dramatically, incurred a $25 billion dollar debt, and cracked down on political opponents - even imprisoning some (socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, etc.).
In fact, the economic problems in the 1920-1921 Depression were actually worse in many ways than the Great Depression a decade later. But that downturn didnt last as long thankfully. Warren Harding cut federal spending and lowered taxes. And in less than two years the number of unemployed in the country fell from 4.9 million to 2.8 million, en route to a rate of 1.8 percent by 1926 under his successor, Mr. Coolidge.
Oh and Harding set the political prisoners free, even inviting Debs to the White House. He was a classier act than many now remember.
The night Harding died, Coolidge was at his family home in Vermont. The house had no electricity or telephone, so word came to the vice president via messenger. He got up from bed and dressed. Then he knelt beside his bed and prayed, after which he went downstairs where his father, a notary public, administered the presidential oath to him.
By the time Calvin Coolidge became president, the country was on its way to enjoying some great years of prosperity. He was a fiscal conservative who tried his best to stay out of the way. He knew that the government functioned best as a referee not as a participant in the economic game or as a team owner.
Amity Shlaes has written the definitive biography of the man. Its called, simply, Coolidge. It came out earlier this year, and I interviewed her on the radio about the book and the man.
After he was elected in his own right the next year, he told the nation in his March 4, 1925 inaugural address:
I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very distinct curtailment of our liberty.
Then, on yet another August 2nd, this one in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge had breakfast in the White House residence with his wife, Grace, and remarked to her I have been president four years today. It was one of those quick, concise, directly-to-the-point sentences she had been used to hearing since they met in 1905. It was also something the American people were familiar with, having nicknamed the 30th president Silent Cal.
He had a 9:00 meeting with reporters in his office that morning. Before fielding a few questions, he told those gathered: If the conference will return at 12:00, I may have a further statement to make. Curious, but compliant, in those long-since-gone days of semi-civility between presidents and the press, the journalists found their way back at noon.
An hour or so before that conference encore, Coolidge took a pencil and wrote a message on a piece of paper. He handed it to his secretary with the instruction to take it to his stenographer and have him make several copies enough for the newsmen who would be at the 12:00 meeting. Ever the frugal man, he suggested that the brief statement could be copied several times on the same sheet, thus only using a few sheets of paper. He told the secretary not to give the note to the stenographer, though, until about 11:50 a.m.
He really wanted to manage this story.
He asked for the pages to be brought to him uncut and before the reporters were admitted to the office, he took a pair of scissors and cut the paper into smaller slips. When he was just about ready, he told his secretary: I am going to hand these out myself; I am going to give them to the newspapermen, without comment, from this side of the desk. I want you to stand at the door and not permit anyone to leave until each of them has a slip, so that they may have an even chance.
An even chance at a big scoop, that is.
The handwritten note from the president said: I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight. Though the now classic Broadway play (made into several film versions), The Front Page, was yet a year away from being published and produced, it comes to mind with the image of dozens of reporters rushing to find telephones.
Calvin Coolidge could have been re-elected if he had wanted the job for another term. His anointed successor, Herbert Hoover, won big in 1928, though it is clear that Coolidge was less-than-enthusiastic about the Great Engineer. It is one of those curious what ifs of history would Coolidge have dealt with the coming of the Great Depression better than his successor?
His decision not to run in 1928 at the height of his popularity puzzled many. But Coolidge understood the nature of leadership, and its seductions. He explained it this way:
It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless or arrogant
Of course, it can never be proven, but I suspect that had Calvin Coolidge decided to run again in 1928, he might have responded to the initial shockwaves of 1929-1930 differently than Hoover. And maybe, just maybe, the Great Depression would not have lasted so long. And maybe, just maybe, people who should know better these days would stop trying the same old failed interventionist tactics that never really worked backed then.
At any rate, Mr. Coolidge died suddenly on January 5, 1933, after Hoover had been badly beaten by Franklin Roosevelt. He did not live to see what a prolonged depression looked like, but I suspect that he would have ventured an opinion or two.
His words would have been brief and directly on point.
I had a great-uncle who died on the day after Harding. His widow died in 1990 (three days before her 102nd birthday).
Think back over the last 100 years or so and name one Republican President that did not inherit a mess from his Democrat predecessor. I cannot think of one. An honest rating of 20th century presidents would in my opinion name, Coolidge, Reagan and Harding at the head of the list.
Calvin Coolidge...a fiscal conservative who tried his best to stay out of the way. He knew that the government functioned best as a referee not as a participant in the economic game or as a team owner.
It appears that presidents feel an imperative to do something for the people. So we get all these grand schemes that grow government, increase our national debt, and reduce our freedoms. Silent Cal had the right idea.
The same thing could probably be said about governors. For example, Rudy Guliani had to clead up the mess in New York.
” Silent Cal had the right idea.”
A true Model for all presidents.
If thier is one though I need to know more about is his stance on Prohibition.
I know he personally had little intrest, but maybe the polical winds simply weren't as strong to repeal it when he was in office.
That is the book I am reading right now. I'm maybe a quarter of the way through.
My mom was 4 years old when her mom pointed out the train, bearing Harding’s body, as it passed through her hometown, Boone, Iowa. She also pointed out to her that Coolidge was the new president.
She speaks of the heavy impression that made on her throughout her childhood. It was an abrupt baptism for her into the ideas of death, politics, and the importance of the presidency and presidential succession.
this sounds so TODAY!
When Coolidge sent out his telegram from SD concerning his intentions on seeking another term, it opened up the field.
The then-gov of MA, Fuller, seeing Coolidge's success as a MA governor tough on crime (BPD strike...), reportedly changed his mind on clemency, hoping to emulate Coolidge's upward success.
It backfired at the Republican Convention, killing his chance at the VP slot.
Coolidge and Hoover were two entirely different men. Coolidge often saw that federal government involvement in anything...even rescue or support after a major flood...was not necessary. Hoover was the opposite....believing that the federal government needed to be there to support the role as ‘protector’.
The word “wonder-boy” was one of those affectionate terms that Coolidge gave Hoover....mostly because of his planning and engineering talents. As much as Coolidge was blessed with common sense....Hoover was blessed with great planning talents.
The true difference between the two comes up as Hoover sees the necessity of the government trying to fix the Wall Street failures in 1929. I would imagine that Coolidge would have done almost nothing. It’s hard to say who would have been right.
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