Ronald Reagan had two role models coming into the White House in 1981. The first was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came to power during the Great Depression. The American economy in 1981, though nowhere nearly as precarious as it is today, was mired in one of the worst periods of stagnation since the Depression. Reagan saw Roosevelt’s willingness to up-end the status quo as the path to restoring the nation. But where FDR implemented the New Deal to keep America from deteriorating into a Third World country (a term that did not exist until the Cold War began), Reagan would need to reverse course for the crisis he faced. To do that, he would have to turn to his second role model, the quiet, dour Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge, a former governor of Massachusetts, was a contender for the 1920 Republican nomination. Smart money said that Coolidge, who had made his reputation breaking the Boston Police Union in the 1919 strike, rivaled Theodore Roosevelt crony General Leonard Wood. Whoever won the nomination would likely beat the Democratic ticket (which turned out to be Ohio Governor James Cox and Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt). But in 1920, conventions were not the primary-driven pieces of stagecraft they are today. Incumbent presidents had to fight to keep their jobs. The anointed heir to the party throne might emerge from the convention as an also-ran. 1920 was no exception. Back-room deals and political bartering resulted the nomination of the handsome, affable Warren Harding, a man with Bill Clinton’s libido, but not his intelligence. To give weight to the ticket, the GOP tapped Coolidge as vice-president.
Harding, as discussed in this space recently, was in over his head. He famously predicted the job would kill him, and in 1923, it did. Coolidge, a classic New England Puritan, became president in a manner befitting a plain, simple-living man from Vermont. He was sworn in late at night by his father, a notary public, in a Vermont farmhouse with no power and no indoor plumbing. It was probably a good thing, too, as Harding had the most corrupt cabinet since Ulysses S. Grant half a century earlier.
Coolidge quickly crafted his image as “Silent Cal,” a man who said very little. Ironically, it was Coolidge who first used the new medium of radio to regularly address the nation, giving the president a direct line to the people. He also started the tradition of broadcasting the State of the Union address, an absolute novelty in 1923.
Coolidge inherited a postwar boom and crafted his policies to preserve it. Coolidge was a major proponent of the trickle down theory that Reagan favored. At the time he came to office, the highest income tax rate in America was 70%. He had it down to 50% by the time he left office in 1929. He also lifted many of the regulations that came out of the Progressive Era. Much of this sustained the prosperity of the 1920’s through the end of Coolidge’s term, but…
Many of those same moves lifted controls that might have prevented the Crash of 1929 or at least mitigated its effects. Whereas we had 70 years of both Keynesian and Milton Friedman economics to guide us in 2008, the consequences of Coolidge’s hands-off approach to the economy were hard to predict. It was a new world, one where the United States occupied a position now occupied by China in the world, a nation with a rapidly growing economy and poised to become the world’s commercial superpower. Most of the institutions we now take for granted, even after 2008, did not exist, or were so new that no one quite knew how to utilize them.
However, while Coolidge shares some of the blame for the Crash of 1929, what cost him some of the later respect of historians, even after a brief renaissance in his reputation in the 1980’s, is his passivity. Not only was Coolidge reserved, he was hardly decisive. Many of his policies came from letting cabinet members such as Harlan Stone, Herbert Hoover, or Andrew Mellon pick up the ball and run, simply giving their moves his stamp of approval. No one expected him to be as bold as Theodore Roosevelt or his cousin Franklin. Certainly, the nation no longer had the patience for the Sheldon Cooperesque Woodrow Wilson. But lesser lights such as Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and even the paranoid Richard Nixon possessed a requisite amount of gumption to make bold moves when called upon. Only Nixon could go to China, and only Coolidge could have given weight to unpopular banking regulations that might have kept the economy from overheating.
Coolidge was a good president for his time, but he could never be a great one. The job requires far more imagination than he had. But he was damn sight better than the empty suit he replaced, Warren Harding.