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, Florence—described derisively by some as “The Duchess”—didn’t allow an autopsy, so we’ll 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 cronies—men 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 Hoover’s 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 didn’t 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. It’s 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.
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