A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928 by Edmund A. Moore

catholicrunsforpresidentThe Presidential election of 1928 was not a close one. Yet, it was memorable for the reason that the losing Democratic candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, was the first Catholic to be nominated for the Presidency by a major party. Although Smith’s religion was not the main reason he lost, it certainly didn’t help. And it gave Smith’s opponents, who distrusted him for his stance on the repeal of Prohibition and for being from New York City, even more ammunition to use against him.

In 1956, a political scientist named Edmund A. Moore looked back to 1928 and examined the election strictly in terms of Smith’s religion. It’s not a particularly relevant book to us today since: 1) a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected President in 1960, 2) there have been subsequent Catholic nominees for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency (John Kerry in 2004, Geraldine Ferraro as Vice President in 1984, and current Vice President Joe Biden), 3) Catholics appear all over the political spectrum now (Dennis Kucinich and Rick Santorum were both Catholic candidates in 2012.) and 4) there was a major party Mormon nominee in Mitt Romney and the U.S. was practically in a state of war against that religion during the 19th Century. America has come a long way in hating religion and we save our dumbest and most vile invective for Islam.

When we last saw Smith in 1924, his delegates at the Democratic Convention in New York successfully blocked the nomination of William McAdoo and forced the Democrats into nominating a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, who … did not win.

In 1928 Smith was the presumptive nominee. Anti-Smith forces decided that the best way to stop the Catholic “wet” governor of New York was to find a “dry” Catholic. Montana senator Thomas Walsh took a few delegates to the convention in Houston, but it was not nearly enough to stop Smith’s momentum. The Democrats finished their business in three days. Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson was the Vice Presidential Nominee.

The Republicans were running the very popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was generally considered to be the brains behind the very popular Calvin Coolidge. Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas was nominated for Vice President.

In 1928, American Catholics were a scary bunch to many for a variety of reasons, although not many of them made a lot of sense. There was a general fear of people who tended to live in big cities (as Smith did). There was a widely-held belief that a Catholic president would be more obedient to the Pope than to the American people.

Smith tried to react to the religious arguments against him, but he never could find the right approach. The problem facing him was that some of the arguments were so outlandish (like turning the White House over to the Pope) that it was hard to argue against something so outlandish without sounding foolish. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly had long articles with discussions of Smith’s “Catholic problem.” 

Another problem Smith faced was that with the focus on his religion as well as his opposition to Prohibition, nobody really knew what Smith’s positions on other matters were. Also, because Smith sounded “ethnic”, Republican opponents reveled in pointing out his lack of education and dearth of foreign policy experience as compared to the Stanford-educated and world renowned Hoover. (This book doesn’t discuss Smith’s positions on any matter in any depth.)

With the American economy booming, Smith faced an uphill battle in 1928. But, with Southern Democrats fearful of a Catholic because he was, for lack of a better word, different, Smith’s base of support was gone. Hoover routed Smith by a 444-87 margin in the electoral vote and by a 58%-40% margin in the popular vote. Hoover was able to pick off the Southern states of Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Smith even lost his home state of New York. The only states that Smith won were states in the Deep South with almost no Republican voters as well as two narrow wins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Smith was hoping that by running in 1928, he would still be popular among Democrats and be considered a top candidate for 1932. That idea had one problem that Smith didn’t foresee. With Smith running for President, the Democrats found a new man to run for New York Governor. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime Smith ally. When 1932 rolled around, the two men were no longer allies. They were competitors.

American politics has never been pretty. Mud has been thrown since the Election of 1796. My impression from this book is that it was clear that there was a significant part of America that didn’t want a candidate like Al Smith to win. His Catholicism was just one facet of why people feared him. The fact that he was from a city, and not just any city, but THE BIGGEST CITY still left a good chunk of America afraid. If Smith hadn’t been Catholic, there would have been some other reason to go after his character.

The Election of 1928 showed that America was, for the most part, full of shallow, fearful bigots who were easily manipulated by more powerful forces. Would Al Smith been a good President? Probably not. After the election, Smith went to work for those same big business concerns that he campaigned against. The losers were all the people who were manipulated into believing the worst things about a large part of the American population. Or do the American people just prefer to be told whom to hate?

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The 103rd Ballot by Robert K. Murray

If one were able to go back in time to 1924, most people would be stunned by a lot of things. Communications that seemed glacial in pace, medical care that wouldn’t be very good, and also that the United States was dominated by people who believed that the country should be run by people who were white, who didn’t drink any alcohol, and, for good measure, had only a passing acquaintance with science.

For the most part, the America of 1924 was an unpleasant place for those who were not part of the ruling class. The conflict between all of the disparate parts of American life at the time came to a head in the disastrous Democratic convention of 1924.

Robert K. Murray’s book from 1976 has a straightforward title about how long it took for the Democrats to nominate a candidate for President in 1924. It took the Democrats 16 days, packed into a sweltering Madison Square Garden in New York, to finally nominate someone to go be a sacrificial lamb running against incumbent Calvin Coolidge, who had quickly gained in popularity as the American economy began to flourish. Murray’s book is a great read, rich with detail, and surprisingly not too bogged down with details. There is a good feel for the time period, although you do leave the book with the feeling that everyone in New York in 1924 thought that everyone from outside of New York was a stupid hick and beneath them. Which is to say, New York is still the same.

The Democrats had a lot of problems in 1924, but perhaps their biggest was that a large chunk of their support in 1924 came from the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the Klan had developed a system where people could easily join up. Becoming a Klan member didn’t mean that you were in favor of burning crosses and lynching African-Americans. It just meant that you liked a country that was white, Protestant, and free of immigrants (except of course for the immigrants that your family came from, they were OK). Estimates of Klan membership in the 1920s ranged from 3 to 8 MILLION people. Some state governments, such as Indiana’s, were essentially run by the Klan.

Prohibition was the other big wedge issue for the Democrats. The party was split between rural conservatives who supported it and urban moderates and progressives who found the idea intolerable.

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Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

hoover

President #31, C-SPAN Historians ranking #34

The Pac-10 goes to the White House and is not Invited Back

Herbert Hoover seemingly had everything you would want from a President. He was well-educated, with a degree in geology from Stanford. He had traveled the world. He was a successful businessman. He showed he could organize people all over the world to ward off famine.

And when he became President, he was awful. Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis (that was not his fault), Hoover, in crude test pilot/astronaut speech, screwed the pooch. Whatever Hoover had accomplished before in life, was forgotten under the weight of massive unemployment and a shrinking economy,

William E. Leuchtenburg, who has written extensively on the history of the Great Depression, does not paint a sympathetic portrait of Hoover. Instead, Hoover comes across as  vainglorious, although tempered by a desire to serve the public. But, Hoover wanted the public to respect him and love him because he was Herbert Hoover. Out of office,  Hoover turned into a bitter reactionary. But, as Hoover would say in his retirement (he lived until he was 90) about how endured all the taunts, “I just outlived all the bastards.”

Herbert Clark Hoover was born into a Quaker family on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa. He was orphaned at the age of 10 and sent off to live with an uncle in Oregon. Not surprisingly, Hoover had a very unhappy childhood. His uncle, who had recently lost his son, didn’t find Herbert Hoover a suitable replacement. But, Hoover did get an education. And, in 1891, Hoover was admitted to the first ever class of a new university in California: Leland Stanford Junior University. Hoover’s field of study was geology.

While at Stanford, Hoover found the eye of another woman who was in the geology major. Actually, she was the ONLY woman in the geology major at the time. Her name was Lou (short for Louise) Henry. The two would eventually marry in 1899. In addition to raising two children, Herbert and Lou collaborated on an English translation of the 16th Century textbook on metallurgy called De re metallica.

Hoover was also the student manager of the football team. He is credited with coming up with the idea for the first Cal-Stanford Big Game in March of 1892. Stanford won the first meeting 14-10, although the game was delayed supposedly because Hoover neglected to bring a football with him.

Fresh out of college, Hoover managed to get a job with the English mining firm of Bewick, Moening, and Company. He traveled the world inspecting mines for the company. He became an expert at getting mines that were not meeting production quotas up to speed. By the age of 27, Hoover was a full partner in the firm and moved to London fulltime.

In 1908, Hoover left Bewick and became a consultant. He made millions hopping around the globe trying to get mines to produce more. His style was autocratic, but highly successful.

Leuchtenburg points out that despite Hoover being orphaned at a young age, he didn’t try to be much of a parent to his own two sons. While on his frequent travels, he would communicate infrequently with his children and even his wife.

When World War I began in 1914, Hoover’s public profile shot up. Hoover helped finance the journeys of numerous American expatriates back to the United States. Many had found their lines of credit cut off by banks because of the war. But, the biggest problem Europe faced was hunger.

Belgium was the country where much of the initial fighting took place, and, according, it suffered the most. Hoover managed to convince both the British and German to allow him to bring in relief supplies to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Hoover was also determined to make sure that the relief went directly to the people who needed it, and was not siphoned off to any army. Hoover’s efforts in Belgium made him a worldwide figure.

Once the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson summoned Hoover back to the United States to head up the newly created Food Administration. Hoover was charged with keeping America’s food supply going to meet the added demand of a war.

Hoover did not want to have to resort to rationing. Instead, he created a small army of volunteers (nearly all of the women) to go door to door to encourage people to forego meat on Mondays or wheat products on Wednesdays. Hoover was given wide latitude by Congress and the President to act as he saw fit. He was dubbed “the food czar.” No matter what the title was, Hoover got results. The United States did not have to force the rationing of food during World War I.

When the war was over, Hoover was possibly the most popular political figure in the United States. Hoover supported Wilson’s efforts during the negotiations at Versailles. He came out in favor of the League of Nations. He opposed the stepped up prosecutions of Communists by Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. Hoover was the darling of the Progressive movement. One prominent Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hoped that the party could convince Hoover to run for President in 1920.

There was one problem: nobody knew what party Hoover belonged to. Hoover had never explicitly said so. Finally, in the summer of 1920, Hoover announced that he was a Republican. One reason for this was that Hoover did not wish to be identified with racist Southern Democrats. Also, Hoover could see that the Democrats were sure losers in 1920.

After Warren Harding swept into office in the 1920 election, Hoover was offered his choice of Cabinet positions. Hoover opted for the job of Secretary of Commerce. This was an unusual choice as the job had little cachet attached to it. (Can you name the current Secretary of Commerce?)

DSCF0908Hoover revolutionized the office of Secretary of Commerce. He was able to convince the President and Congress to add more responsibilities to the job. Under Hoover, the Commerce Department took control of the Census, the regulation of air travel, and the regulation of radio frequencies. Hoover established commissions to study pretty much any issue that he felt that the Commerce Department might have some responsibility for.

After Calvin Coolidge became President after the death of Harding, Hoover remained in the job. Coolidge did not particularly care for Hoover, sarcastically referring to him as “the Boy Wonder.” But, Hoover could not be replaced. He had made himself indispensible in the eyes of the public.

During the great famine of 1921 in the Soviet Union, Hoover led a relief effort there, despite the objections of many who wanted nothing to do with the Communist regime there. Ironically, Hoover may have done more harm than good. Soviet foreign policy expert George Kennan would later claim that Hoover’s efforts in the USSR served only to legitimize the leadership of Lenin. Hoover would be one of the few Republicans who wanted to normalize relations with the USSR. (This wouldn’t happen until 1933.)

In 1927, one of the largest natural disasters ever to befall the United States hit. It was the Mississippi River Flood. Over 700,000 people had to leave their homes. 27,000 square miles of land were flooded. Over 200 people died.

Hoover was tabbed by Coolidge to head up the relief efforts. This was an area where Hoover did his best. He traveled throughout the affected areas, ordering people to fix problems, not in a week, not in a day, but NOW. Orders were given by Hoover. He expected them to be obeyed. Hoover also made sure that aid was equally distributed to both white and black victims of the flood. This earned him the enmity of some in the South, but further burnished his image with Progressives.

When Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for another term in 1928, Hoover was the presumptive Republican nominee for President. He faced little opposition and had to do little campaigning to win the nomination. Although the Republican Convention was held in Kansas City, it was still not the practice at the time for the candidate to be present to receive the nomination. So, Hoover gave his acceptance speech at Stanford Stadium.

The election of 1928 was no contest. The Democrats nominated New York governor Al Smith, who was the first Catholic nominee from a major party. America was not ready to elect a Catholic, especially one who favored the repeal of Prohibition. Hoover won 58% of the popular vote and 40 of the 48 states. Hoover even won four states of the Confederacy, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, which was quite a feat for that era.

Hoover’s inaugural address was full of high-flying language.

We are steadily building a new race—a new civilization great in its own attainments. The influence and high purposes of our Nation are respected among the peoples of the world. We aspire to distinction in the world, but to a distinction based upon confidence in our sense of justice as well as our accomplishments within our own borders and in our own lives.
—-
This is not the time and place for extended discussion. The questions before our country are problems of progress to higher standards; they are not the problems of degeneration. They demand thought and they serve to quicken the conscience and enlist our sense of responsibility for their settlement. And that responsibility rests upon you, my countrymen, as much as upon those of us who have been selected for office.
Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure. In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.

Hoover had big plans for his Administration. He wanted to streamline government regulations and was prepared to establish numerous commissions to accomplish this. (This has been a popular technique since). There was a proposal to build what would become the St. Lawrence Seaway, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a dam in Boulder Canyon of the Colorado River (which would become Hoover Dam). There were also plans to reform the Federal prison system. Hoover also canceled all leases for oil drilling on Federal lands.

On October 14, 1929, Hoover attended Game 5 of the 1929 World Series at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. He received a huge ovation from the crowd.

Note: Half-assed attempts at explaining economics follow. Any resemblance between my writing and actual economic theory is entirely coincidental.

Ten days later, Black Thursday hit Wall Street. Over 12 million shares (besting the previous high by 4 million) were traded at the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 1929. The Dow Jones average dropped from 305 to 299. But, Wall Street said that there was little to worry about. On the following Monday, the Dow dropped to 260. And on Tuesday, it was 230. The slide would continue until 1932. The Dow lost 89% compared to its high on September 3, 1929.

The Wall Street Crash was just one symptom of the many problems of the Great Depression. Banks began to rein in credit (or simply just fail) and foreclose on homes and farms. Industries cut back on wages or laid off employees. People saw their life savings disappear.

Hoover, faced with an unprecedented crisis, took steps that most economists believed only exacerbated the problems. One of the biggest blunders was his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in June of 1930. This bill raised tariffs to unprecedented levels. The result was a sharp decline in imports. Also, other nations passed their own protective tariff measures.

Despite his background in humanitarian causes, Hoover gave the impression that he didn’t care much about the problems that many Americans were facing. Part of this was from the fact that Hoover was now a President. He had to work with Congress and politicians with different agendas. He found himself in a position where he had less authority to get things done. Hoover was also strongly opposed to any Federal government handouts, feeling that they contrary to the spirit of individualism that he was trying to build in the country.

Hoover was also convinced that the biggest problem with the economy was the Federal Government’s budget deficit. Hoover raised income taxes and sharply curtailed Federal spending. The net effect of this was to suck even more money out of the economy. (For a dissenting opinion, you can read this book.)

By October of 1931, when Hoover returned to Shibe Park to see the Philadelphia Athletics play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, he was booed. Few Presidents had ever received such a public reaction like that at that time. (It’s not unusual now. Here’s the reaction George W. Bush got in 2001. By 2008, the reaction was different. Barack Obama’s reception at the 2009 All-Star Game could be described as “mixed.”) A growing number of homeless people formed communities that were dubbed “Hoovervilles.”

Despite his wide travels in the world, Hoover was not an expert on foreign policy. He hoped to ease tensions between the United States and Latin America, but ended up sending troops using troops to prop up a right wing regime in Nicaragua, setting up the long battle between the Somoza regime and the Sandinistas that would last until the Reagan years. (Hoover would withdraw the troops before he left office.) Hoover, like most other world leaders of the time, did not do much of anything to stem the rise of German fascism or Japanese militarism.

The nadir of his unpopularity may have been in July of 1932 when a group of World War I veterans marched to Washington asking Congress to pay them a promised bonus for their military service a few years early. The ragtag group camped out in Washington, but Hoover ordered the Army to clear them out. Under the direction of Douglas MacArthur, the Army routed the so called “Bonus Army” from their encampment. The Army was portrayed as using brutal means to accomplish this, although most accounts agree that it didn’t take much force to get the protesters to move. Also, rolling tanks down the streets of Washington tend to make people less inclined to protest.

There was one forward looking project that Hoover tried in an effort to provide some help. In the summer of 1932, Hoover started a program called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. It was a government entity that would provide loans to state and local government, along with banks and other financial institutions. But, the program was bogged down in bureaucracy and little of the money that the RFC was authorized to lend was spent during Hoover’s term in office.

Hoover was pleased that the Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt for President in 1932, feeling that he had a much better chance of beating him in November. Hoover thought that Roosevelt was an intellectual lightweight. But, Hoover could not overcome his unpopularity. He was also no match for Roosevelt as a campaigner. Roosevelt seemed energetic and positive. Hoover was dour and stuffy.

After winning 40 states in 1928, Hoover would win just six in 1932. Hoover received just 39% of the popular vote and only 59 electoral votes, 36 of them from Pennsylvania. Hoover’s home state of California gave him just 37% of the vote.

During the campaign, Hoover was personally hurt by Roosevelt’s claim that Hoover had encouraged reckless speculation in the stock market. (In fact, Hoover had done the opposite as Secretary of Commerce.) Hoover wanted to have Roosevelt work with him during the transition to calm the financial markets. But, Roosevelt refused and remained silent.

On March 4, 1933, Hoover had to hold in his emotions as Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office. He felt as if his life’s work had all been for naught.

After remaining quiet for about a year after the election, Hoover began to speak out against Roosevelt. He denounced the New Deal programs as socialistic. (Ironically, one of Hoover’s closest friends overseas was British Prime Minister James Ramsay McDonald, one of the most leftward leaning PMs in history.) He considered Roosevelt to be one of the most dangerous men to ever be President. Roosevelt responded in not so subtle ways. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had the name of Hoover Dam changed to Boulder Dam (it would be later changed back.)

After Roosevelt’s death, Hoover headed up a commission for President Harry Truman that examined government waste and inefficiency. This job won Hoover some plaudits.

Eventually, Hoover took on the air of a beloved elder statesman. The Republicans held “farewell” celebrations for him at their conventions in 1952, 1956, and 1960. The Senate honored Hoover in 1957 with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy feting the former President. Hoover was too ill to attend the 1964 convention, although nominee Barry Goldwater offered his respects.

Hoover was working on his own biography of Franklin Roosevelt before his death. It has never been published or even released to scholars for inspection because, according to Leuchtenburg, its tone is so strident that it would tarnish Hoover’s reputation more than Roosevelt’s.

Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 in New York City at the age of 90. He was buried back in his native Iowa alongside his wife Lou, who had died in 1944.

Leuchtenburg has penned an interesting biography of a man who was very hard to know. The private side of Hoover was seldom revealed, even to people in his own family. Leuchtenburg tries to shed light on an almost entirely opaque figure.

Hoover was someone who Americans, at least for a while, admired. But they didn’t seem to actually like him. Hoover didn’t want to be liked. He wanted to get things done, but he never could figure out how to get things done as President. When you become President, you have to know how to work with people, not just order them around. Hoover likely came to the White House expecting to do great things, but the Great Depression ended those hopes.

Would Hoover had fared better during a time of prosperity? We don’t know. But, you can only judge Hoover by what he did with the situation he was given. In a country that was losing hope, Hoover offered almost none.

Please note a correction above marked by strikeout and italic type.

Other stuff: Herbert and Lou Hoover are buried at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is part of that site.

After World War I, Hoover started a research institute at Stanford to study the cause of the war. Since then, the Hoover Institution has become of the one most influential conservative think tanks in the United States, covering all aspects of public policy. Some of its fellows have included Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Edwin Meese, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell.

Hoover was the last sitting Cabinet member to be elected President and only the fourth one overall. The other three were James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, all of whom were Secretaries of State.

The only other candidate from the two major parties who attended a Pac-10 university was Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater attended, but did not graduate from the University of Arizona.

Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg

President #30, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #26

The chief business of this blog is business

coolidgeCalvin Coolidge assumed the Presidency in 1923 as something of a cipher. But, by the time he left office in 1929, he was one of the most popular men in America. And, very quickly, that popularity vanished with the onset of the Great Depression. Just who was this taciturn man from New England?

David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor and a columnist for Slate.com, does an excellent job of putting the life and times of Calvin Coolidge into perspective. Greenberg doesn’t spare Coolidge from some blame for the Great Depression.  He does  provide a motive for Coolidge’s policies, however. Also, Greenberg delves into the public persona of one of the first Presidents who mastered the public relations game, and was able to capitalize on a new medium that was going to transform politics: radio.

Calvin Coolidge came into this world on July 4, 1872 as John Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father was a farmer and store owner, and like many people in small towns, held a variety of elected offices. Calvin (who dropped John as a teenager) lost his mother in 1885 to tuberculosis that was complicated by injuries suffered in a horseback accident. His only sibling, a sister named Abigail, died five years later from appendicitis.

Without his mother around, Calvin became a shy and somewhat withdrawn child. His father sent him to a boarding school, where Coolidge had a hard time making friends at first.  Slowly, he came out of his shell and became a leader at his school. Speech and debate proved to be his specialties.

Coolidge would go on to study at Amherst. There he would meet two lifelong friends, and political allies, Dwight Morrow and Harlan Stone. After graduating Amherst, Coolidge studied law as an apprentice in Northampton, Massachusetts. And in 1898, Coolidge won a seat on the Northampton city council, kicking off a career in politics.

For a man who appeared to be very quiet and withdrawn, it would seem unlikely that Coolidge could propel himself into the highest office in the country. But, as Greenberg demonstrates, Coolidge was extraordinarily shrewd in grabbing opportunities to move up the political ladder, as well as presenting himself as a man who could be a leader.

By 1911, Coolidge had been elected to the Massachusetts State Senate. And in 1913, Coolidge became the President of the State Senate. From this position, Coolidge positioned himself with key Republican leaders in Massachusetts, some of whom would be key financiers in his campaigns for higher office.

In 1915, Coolidge was elected to his first of three one-year terms as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. And in 1918, Coolidge reached what many thought would be the highest position a man like him could hope to obtain, governor of Massachusetts.

Coolidge’s term as governor was marked by reducing government spending and streamlining the bureaucracy of Massachusetts. But, Coolidge might have faded into obscurity if the police officers of Boston had not gone on strike in 1919.

This strike was no ordinary strike. Nearly the entire force walked off the job, leaving the streets of Boston open for roving gangs of thieves and looters.

At first Coolidge didn’t want to intervene, preferring Boston’s mayor to handle the situation. After two days of rioting, in which three people were killed, Coolidge fired the striking officers and sent off a telegram to Samuel Gompers, who was negotiating for the police men, that read, in part, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

Coolidge made sure the newspapers saw this telegram. And the public lauded Coolidge for his tough stance on the strike, and his visibility on the national stage increased. The Republicans put him on the ticket in 1920 as Vice President with Warren Harding.

Once Coolidge assumed the Vice Presidency, Harding had little use for him. Coolidge was rarely consulted on policy, and Coolidge spent much of his time trying to keep busy.

Being shut out of Harding’s scandal-ridden White House turned out to be a good thing for Coolidge. When Harding passed away in August of 1923, Coolidge was able to assume the Presidency without any of the baggage from the numerous scandals that were about to come to light.

No one was sure what to make of the new President. Some thought he would be a lightweight compared to Harding (and Harding was about as lightweight as Presidents come). But, Coolidge surprised people with his quiet and seemingly honest and forthright style.

Coolidge quickly appeared everywhere in the press. He held press conferences twice a week for nearly his entire Administration. He would appear in a photo with just about anyone. And he would wear anything photographers asked. (This link is to a particularly rare one.) He was the ideal man for that moment in history.

And what was happening during this time in America? Foremost, the country was prosperous. Wages were increasing. Productivity was up. People could buy and spend freely it seemed. The U.S. economy, bolstered by booming industries in automobiles and radios, looked to be in great shape.

Coolidge, advised by Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon, proposed a hefty tax cut, eliminating many surtaxes on the highest income brackets. These had been put in place to help the economy during World War I. But in peacetime, Coolidge and Mellon though that stimulating the economy with tax cuts would ultimately help out all income levels.

Congressional opposition kept Coolidge from getting all that he wanted in the tax bill, but there was enough left to satisfy him. And, according to Greenberg, left America with an economic model that would be adopted 57 years down the road by Ronald Reagan.

In 1924, Coolidge decided to run for President in his own right. This might have been a daunting task. No Vice President, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who had assumed the Presidency after a death had been elected in his own right. And Coolidge was no Teddy Roosevelt.

But, Coolidge was no political innocent. His three principal opponents on the Republican side all were removed in expert ways.

Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot, one of Roosevelt’s last disciples to hold a high office, was asked by Coolidge to help mediate a strike among coal miners in his state, but he had to follow White House directions, effectively taking Pinchot out of the race.

Henry Ford was another rival.  Coolidge offered to sell Ford the Federal hydroelectric plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  After this, Ford decided against running against Coolidge. (The move was later blocked in Congress.)

The third Republican opponent was Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette, a Progressive. La Follette’s Progressive movement was shut out of decision making at the White House, and Coolidge’s people controlled the party regulars, who were needed to have any chance of gaining the nomination. La Follette would run as a third party candidate.

The Democrats provided even less opposition to Coolidge than his own party. With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the nation, the Democrats found themselves being identified as the party of the Klan because of their strength in the South. The Democrats took 103 ballots and 10 days before coming up with a nominee in 1924, as the party split over support for the Klan. It was a New York lawyer (although born in West Virginia) named John W. Davis who got the nomination.

Bruce Barton, a public relations man who worked in the White House and deftly crafted Coolidge’s image, had celebrities, such as Al Jolson, campaign for the President. (In 1924, Hollywood and Broadway were dominated by Republicans.) Coolidge also used the radio to deliver speeches, which allowed him to reach a much wider audience than ever before. Greenberg estimated that the crowds of people who showed up for Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches were about 13 million people. Coolidge could reach more than that with just one radio address. (You can listen to some of Coolidge’s speeches here.)

Coolidge, like Harding in 1920, won the election in a landslide. The Democrats won only in the states of the Confederacy, plus Oklahoma. Coolidge won 54.4% of the vote and Davis won only 28.8% of the popular vote, the lowest percentage for a Democratic nominee ever. Third party candidate La Follette won 16% of the vote and carried his home state of Wisconsin.

In his full term in office, Coolidge continued his pro-business policies. It was in January 1925 when Coolidge issued his famous statement “The principal business of America is business.”  Greenberg also points out that Coolidge followed up that statement with “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

This means that either: 1) Coolidge truly had a pro-business agenda, 2) Coolidge’s idealism was about business’s ability to improve the nation, 3) Coolidge was just trying to sound smart or profound, 4) it was all an act. It was likely all four.

Coolidge’s election energized the stock markets. Millions of people who had never invested before turned to the stock market with the hope of quick riches. Real estate prices soared in some markets, especially in Florida. Few people believed that there would be any end in sight to this prosperity.

While the economy soared, America was faced with numerous internal conflicts. Women, now with the right to vote, were starting to assert their independence and sexuality during this time. Civil rights remained an issue that had to be confronted. American literature, music, and art were all undergoing rapid changes.

And what was Coolidge’s response to all this? Not much. He just kept quiet (an image he cultivated) and tried to present the image that he was taking care of things. He wanted Americans to believe that their president was a simple guy. He liked to go back to his farm to work. (Be sure to dress appropriately!)

Over in Europe, the situation was not as rosy. Nearly every European country had built up huge debts that they owed to the United States. Germany was also trying to pay off reparations as well. Germany ended up facing a hyperinflation scare where, at one time, one U.S. dollar was worth 4.2 TRILLION marks.

Coolidge, while trying to maintain an isolationist stance, did encourage some international agreements that were supposed to alleviate the debt problem, as well as reduce the chance of another world war. But, not much more was produced other than toothless agreements such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was supposed to prohibit the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Its effectiveness proved to be limited, to put it kindly.

Although Coolidge did not wish to get involved in European matters, he had a different view toward Latin America. Coolidge and Morrow had to work hard behind the scenes to prop up the Mexican government of Alvaro Obregon. When Obregon was replaced by Plutarco Elias Calles in 1923, more problems followed, as Calles moved to nationalize businesses and the holdings of the Catholic Church.

Then in 1926, Coolidge ran into a problem in Nicaragua when he withdrew Marines who had been supporting the government there. With the Marines gone, civil war broke out in Nicaragua. And Coolidge had to send the Marines back.

Coolidge’s friend, Dwight Morrow, was able to negotiate a solution to the problem in Mexico. However, the problems of Nicaragua would be a thorn in the side of American presidents for the next 60 years.

In 1928, when Coolidge addressed the Pan-American Congress in Havana, he spoke of the region’s shared goals. But, Coolidge found few friends.  The Pan-American Congress almost adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. for intervening in the affairs of other countries in the region. At the last minute, American delegate Charles Evans Hughes was able to get the resolutuion withdrawn.

In August of 1927, Coolidge famously announced his intention not to run for a second full term in 1928 by handing reporters small slips of paper that read, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” Coolidge had felt that he had done enough as President and had little to gain by running for another term. Also, Coolidge had still never recovered psychologically from the death of his son, Calvin Jr., in 1924 from an infected blister.

And so, Coolidge departed the White House in March of 1929. His Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, took over. And, as most of us know, the stock markets crashed a few months after Hoover was sworn in. And soon after that, the Great Depression began.

The economic hard times made people look back at Coolidge and wonder if he was responsible for the calamity.

Greenberg gives Coolidge a mixed report card. He feels that Coolidge didn’t act to put any controls on the stock market or banking systems because he felt it wasn’t the Federal government’s role. No one had done so before, and it would be especially unlike Coolidge to have taken the lead in this field. But, Coolidge had to have known that the rise in the price of stocks couldn’t be sustained.  Greenberg writes that Coolidge’s tax cutting policies encouraged speculation in corporate stocks, instead of bonds, further inflating their prices, and screwing up (this is a technical term used by economists!) credit markets. (Since corporate taxes were lower, corporations paid out larger dividends.)

According to Greenberg, the difficult in assessing Coolidge is that he is evaluated by people who knew what the problems with the U.S. economy were. But, few people from 1923 through 1928 foresaw those problems. (Some people did, but no one who was in a policy making position did.)  Coolidge ran the country according to a political philosophy that got him from a job as a city councilman in Northampton, Massachusetts, all the way to the White House.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would make Coolidge’s laissez faire policies seem almost quaint. But, they would be revived in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. And another Republican who knew how to manipulate his public image and get his programs through Congress would return to the White House.

When Coolidge passed away in January of 1933, he was already an afterthought to some. Dorothy Parker, upon being told that Coolidge had passed away, remarked, “How could they tell?”

Other stuff: Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace in Plymouth is an historic site operated by the State of Vermont. The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum is in Northampton, Massachusetts. It is not operated by the National Archives, but rather by the Forbes Library, which is a public library established by Judge Charles E. Forbes in 1894.

Coolidge’s Vice President, Charles Dawes, began his term with a speech excoriating the Senate for having obsolete rules. Early in 1925, Coolidge faced a contentious nomination for his Attorney General candidate, Charles Warren. It appeared that the Senate was going to tie 40-40 on the nomination (ties don’t go to the nominee). Dawes, as President of the Senate, could have cast the deciding vote in favor of Sargent. However, when the vote came up, Dawes was taking a nap back at his hotel. The Senate voted without him present and rejected the nomination. Coolidge rarely spoke to Dawes again after that.

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Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean

President #29, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #38

Getting back to normalcy?

hardingAmerica’s 29th President, Warren Gamaliel Harding, has not fared well in the eyes of historians. He is viewed as a weak leader who appointed corrupt friends to high government positions. He was accused of extramarital affairs and fathering illegitimate children. People have speculated that he was murdered by his wife. And not many people even know or cared about what happened during his Administration.

John W. Dean (yes, that John W. Dean, from Watergate times) took on the task of trying to find out who the real Warren Harding was. And why Dean? Is it because he is an expert on presidential scandals? No, it’s actually because Dean grew up in Marion, Ohio, the same town where Harding grew up and lived most of his life. Dean has spent a good amount of his life studying the life of Harding.

Dean has been rather harsh toward other Presidents in books he’s written (namely Richard Nixon and George W. Bush), but in this biography, Dean is almost sympathetic to one of the lesser lights to inhabit the White House. Dean tries to get you to believe that Harding was a decent man, who was in over his head, yet still tried his best.

However, it is hard to believe that someone like Warren Harding ever made it to the White House. Harding did little in his political life except be nice to the right people and “look” presidential. He accomplished little on the domestic front, and his principal foreign policy initiative, the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference, was soon forgotten.

When Harding was 18, he was able to get the financing (all $300 of it) that let him purchase the Marion Star newspaper in his Ohio hometown. Harding loved running a newspaper and developed an interest in politics because of it.

One of the local figures in Marion that Harding took on was the richest man in town, Amos Kling. Eventually, Kling’s daughter, Florence, married Harding, despite the protestations of her father. Florence Harding had borne a child out of wedlock before marrying Warren Harding, although that son ended up being raised by her father, who described his grandson as his “son.” Kling disapproved of Harding and started a rumor campaign in Marion that described Harding as being part African-American. (Kling actually used a far less polite term.) Harding would have to confront stories about his ancestry throughout his life.

Florence, often described as the woman who pushed Warren into politics, actually didn’t do so, according to Dean. Harding decided to run for the state legislature on his own. While serving in Columbus, Harding developed a reputation as being an all around nice guy, who gave good speeches. This eventually elevated Harding into the lieutenant governor’s job in Ohio, but when he tried for the governor’s job in 1910, he was defeated.

Harding started his political comeback when he put William Howard Taft’s name into nomination at the Republican Convention in 1912. In 1914, when Ohio held its first direct senatorial election, Harding won and he and Florence headed off to Washington.

While in the Senate, Harding generally tried to spend most of his time developing connections that could help his standing. He befriended a senator from New Mexico named Albert Fall. This would end up not being a good career move in the long run for Harding. But, at least Fall had a nice mustache.

After eight years of Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in the White House, the American voters were ready to vote Republican. Wilson’s popularity had plummeted after World War I with the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and for the final 18 months of his term, he was rarely seen in public, and the government was run mostly by Wilson’s wife and some key aides.

Nevertheless, Wilson thought he could run for a third term. He was politely told by people that he shouldn’t do so. (Primarily because Wilson was almost dead and could barely talk or see.) Theodore Roosevelt was talked about as a candidate to run for the White House in 1920, but those plans were interrupted when Roosevelt died in 1919.

So, the two major political figures for the 1920 Presidential campaign (Wilson and Roosevelt) were either dead or incapacitated. Into the void, entered Warren Harding, the nice guy from Ohio.

Harding started his campaign in the winter of 1919, but his strategy, formed by Ohio’s Republican boss, Harry Daugherty, was to not try to win the nomination outright, but rather to just hang around during the primaries (which were still in their infancy) and then hope for a deadlocked convention. Harding’s plan was to try to offend as few people as possible.

And Harding’s plan worked. Leonard Wood, who had served with Roosevelt in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, was the leader among a crowded field heading into the Republican Convention. But Wood had irritated too many people during his campaign. No majority was reached by the Friday of the convention. Most observers felt that the delegates wanted to nominate someone on Saturday. Why? So they wouldn’t have to pay for an extra day of hotels. And on that Saturday, Harding ended up as the choice of the Convention on the tenth ballot.

Harding ran against another Ohioan, Governor James Cox (who had a young assistant Secretary of the Navy named Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate, a counterpoint to dour Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s running mate). It would be the first election in which women could vote. It was a landslide. Harding won over 60% of the vote and racked up 404 electoral votes. Harding became the first sitting member of the United States Senate to be elected President.

Almost from the outset, Harding ran into problems in office. His Cabinet had some good people in it, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of Labor James Davis, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon.  However, Harding also picked friends like Daugherty to be Attorney General and Fall to be Secretary of the Interior. Florence’s personal physician, Charles Forbes, would be in charge of veterans medical affairs.

Harding, like seemingly every President, felt that there was too much government spending, and he needed to rein it in. And, like most Presidents, he wasn’t all that successful at doing that. Harding did establish the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) which may be the one legacy of Harding’s administration that lives on today that people have heard of.

Dean tries to detail other legislative initiatives that Harding tried, but none of them stand out. Harding vetoed a plan to award World War I vets a bonus because he didn’t like the way it was funded (primarily, because it wasn’t funded at all). There were some attempts at raising tariffs, which were a pet cause of Republicans of the time. Harding also tried to limit immigration, but that didn’t work as desired because Harding was hesitant to order wide-scale deportations. Dean paints a picture of Harding as a diligent worker, but someone who just didn’t have the temperament to be an executive. He was someone who was your pal, not your boss.

Harding had one minor success in foreign affairs when he was able to get the major powers (U.S, Britain, and Japan) to come to Washington (with Hughes mediating) and negotiate a treaty that was supposed to slow down (or stop all together) the buildup in naval armaments. This was a noble idea. But, World War II spoke to the lasting effect of that treaty.

Scandals started to touch the White House early in 1923. Forbes was discovered to have sold large amounts of surplus government medical supplies to private companies seemingly below cost. But, Forbes actually was taking kickbacks on the deals and enriching himself. Forbes was dismissed from his post.

In the summer of 1923, the Hardings embarked on a trip for the West Coast and Alaska, in order to relax and also to do some campaigning for his own agenda. Harding became the first President to visit Alaska and the first to visit Canada. But while golfing in Portland, Harding took ill with severe chest pains. Harding, who came into office with a bad heart and likely had suffered a mild undiagnosed heart attack in the winter, was suffering from congestive heart failure and pneumonia. In an era before antibiotics and detailed knowledge of cardiological problems, there was little that doctors could do for Harding. He passed away in San Francisco on August 2, 1923 at age 57.

Not long after Harding’s passing, more scandals came to the fore. The most famous was the Teapot Dome scandal. Interior Secretary Fall had been leasing what were supposed to be protected oil reserves to private interests, headed by California oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. The fact that Fall leased them was not the problem. The problem was that Sinclair and Doheny had furnished Fall with bribes in order to get the leases. Eventually, Fall would go to prison for receiving the bribes, although Sinclair and Doheny were acquitted of giving a bribe. Attorney General Daugherty was caught up in this scandal, as well as several others. (It would take a lot of space to list them.) Daugherty resigned his position, but was never convicted of any crime.

In addition to the real scandals, a cottage industry about fabricating Presidential scandals sprung up. A woman named Nan Britton wrote a book called The President’s Daughter, where she claimed to have had an affair with Harding in the White House and having a child with him. H.L. Mencken gave the book a favorable review and sales skyrocketed. Most historians believe that no such affair with Britton occurred.  Harding did have at least one extramarital affair before he became President, according to Dean.

A man named Gaston Means got author May Dixon Thacker to write a book about his “reminiscences” of Harding. It was titled The Strange Death of President Harding. It was supposed to revelatory and accused Florence Harding of poisoning her husband. The book is considered to be almost, but not quite, entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Florence Harding is still thought by some to have murdered her husband.

Warren Harding didn’t leave much of a legacy. His election showed the danger of electing a President who just looked the part. He came from an era where speeches with passages like this:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

were considered brilliant oratory.

Dean states that his main reason for writing about Harding was to set the record straight on him. And to that extent, he succeeds. Warren Harding was not a great president, but he wasn’t a horrible person. He just was unremarkable, and overly loyal to his friends. He was a man who stumbled into the highest office in the land by pissing off fewer people than his opponents. It seems that Americans haven’t used that technique for electing a President subsequently.

Harding’s successor, the laconic and phlegmatic Calvin Coolidge, would actually be the President who become far more famous and beloved by the American people.

Other stuff: Warren Harding’s home isn’t part of the National Park Service. Instead, it is operated by the Ohio Historical Society and it is in Marion.

Author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, described the “Warren Harding Effect”, where people judge a person instantly, but use the wrong clues.

Harding appointed former President Taft to be Chief Justice. Harding’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry C. Wallace, was the father of Henry A. Wallace, who would hold the same position under Franklin Roosevelt, and then later serve as Vice President for one term.