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Harding Dies Coolidge Takes Charge (How we avoided a great depression in the 1920s and prospered)
Townhall ^ | 08/02/2013 | David Stokes

Posted on 08/02/2013 8:42:54 AM PDT by SeekAndFind

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.


TOPICS: Business/Economy; History; Society
KEYWORDS: anniversary; calvincoolidge; coolidge; depression; presidents; warrenharding

1 posted on 08/02/2013 8:42:54 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
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To: SeekAndFind

I’ve been reading this book. It is somewhat slow
(as a book about Coolidge should be) but I am sure it will pick up soon.


2 posted on 08/02/2013 8:50:25 AM PDT by vg0va3
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To: SeekAndFind

What kilt him was that confounded Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in 1920!


3 posted on 08/02/2013 8:52:00 AM PDT by HomeAtLast
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To: vg0va3

Coolidge was a man of few words, but when he spoke, it was REALLY SUBSTANTIVE.

Coolidge and his vivacious wife Grace were invited to quite a few parties, where the legend of “Silent Cal” was born.

It is from this time that most of the jokes and anecdotes involving Coolidge originate. Although Coolidge was known to be a skilled and effective public speaker, in private he was a man of few words and was therefore commonly referred to as “Silent Cal.”

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.”

His famous reply: “You lose.”

Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of their dinner parties, he shrugged and replied, “Got to eat somewhere.”

It was also Dorothy Parker who, upon learning that Coolidge had died, reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?”


4 posted on 08/02/2013 8:55:36 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
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To: SeekAndFind
We vacationed in Vermont in 2011. The Coolidge home and other carefully preserved town buildings in his hometown of Plymouth Notch is a must see. Well worth the admission charge and very knowledgeable guides.

Even the bicycling a**holes in spandex who thought they owned the town because it was astride their racing route on that particular day couldn't demean the legacy of one of America's great presidents.

5 posted on 08/02/2013 8:56:38 AM PDT by Vigilanteman (Obama: Fake black man. Fake Messiah. Fake American. How many fakes can you fit in one Zer0?)
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To: SeekAndFind

Thanks for posting- I just got this book last week but won’t start it until I finish this John Sanford I’m reading:)

Boy could we use Coolidge NOW.


6 posted on 08/02/2013 8:56:54 AM PDT by SE Mom (Proud mom of an Iraq war combat vet)
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To: SeekAndFind

My favorite President.


7 posted on 08/02/2013 9:00:15 AM PDT by Andy'smom
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To: SeekAndFind
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.

Hoover actively intervened against a fall in wage rates, and at a series of White House conferences obtained the agreement of the leading businessmen of the country not to reduce wage rates. Hoover's intervention was reinforced by the influence of the philosophy of altruism insofar as that philosophy played a role in the decisions of businessmen. For altruism implies that employers should not take advantage of the existence of unemployment to reduce wage rates.

The effect if such interference was that the fall in wage rates took place at a much slower rate than in any previous depression. Average wage rates dropped less than 2.5% in 1930 and only about 6.5% in 1931. In contrast, Harding allowed them to drop 19% in one year in the depression of 1920-1921, which was the cause of it being extremely short lived as a result.

8 posted on 08/02/2013 9:00:53 AM PDT by mjp ((pro-{God, reality, reason, egoism, individualism, natural rights, limited government, capitalism}))
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To: SeekAndFind

If there was EVER a case for term limits -

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.

C. Coolidge


9 posted on 08/02/2013 9:03:39 AM PDT by SE Mom (Proud mom of an Iraq war combat vet)
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To: SeekAndFind

The announcement (”I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”) took place in South Dakota, not at the White House.


10 posted on 08/02/2013 9:09:40 AM PDT by Arthur McGowan (If you're FOR sticking scissors in a female's neck and sucking out her brains, you are PRO-WOMAN!)
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To: SE Mom

He believed he came from the people and when he was done he would go back to the people... Great Man...


11 posted on 08/02/2013 9:17:03 AM PDT by just me (We are taking our first steps into a thousand years of darkness)
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To: SeekAndFind
In fact, the economic problems in the 1920-1921 Depression were actually worse in many ways than the Great Depression a decade later.

A couple of songs that reflect the hard times:

Ain't We Got Fun?--Van & Schenk (1921)

Second-Hand Rose--Vaughn De Leath (1921)

12 posted on 08/02/2013 9:23:12 AM PDT by Fiji Hill
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To: SE Mom

” It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. “

Cal was a visionary....


13 posted on 08/02/2013 9:27:39 AM PDT by stephenjohnbanker (K I L L T H E B I L L !!)
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To: vg0va3
Amity Shlaes has written the definitive biography of the man. It’s called, simply, Coolidge.

That is the book I am reading right now. I'm maybe a quarter of the way through.


14 posted on 08/02/2013 9:37:11 AM PDT by Charles Henrickson (Conservative Republican.)
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