What timing! What luck! A man who reduced the federal budget by 1/3 and who should be a patron saint to the recent TEA Party movement and to the ever-increasingly extremist right-wing Republican Party recently came to my area! It was President Calvin Coolidge!
How is it possible for someone who died nearly eighty years ago to make a public appearance today? He led off the annual Natural State Chautauqua program at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover, Arkansas. Chautauqua programs are held at numerous places around the country, and you should look for them and support them.
Coolidge appeared (actually he was impersonated by actor-scholar Jim Cooke) on June 3 and was followed on successive nights by Henry Ford and Zelda Fitzgerald. Most of the performers have researched and portray several historic individuals from various time periods. Each Chautauqua may have a different theme, and my local program’s topic this year could hardly be more appropriate. It was “What Made the 20’s Roar?”
Two years ago in June 2008, the local museum’s Chautauqua theme was “The 1930’s: Shaken Dreams.” I wrote a letter to the editor endorsing it because the policies that led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s were virtually identical to the Bush-Cheney policies from 2001 to 2008. (See The Great Depression and the Periodic Return to the Policies of Herbert Hoover under the economics category.) A lot of local right-wingers did not like my pointing that out and retaliated with several venomous letters to the local paper.
And no, I was not predicting the economic meltdown that occurred three months later in September 2008. My concern then, and now, was/is that every president for the next generation will have to deal with the effects of Bush-Cheney’s incompetence and irresponsibility.
Calvin Coolidge was elected vice-president in 1920 and became president when Warren Harding suddenly died. He was elected in his own right in 1924 and surprised everyone when he announced he would not run in 1928. Some historians think that Coolidge hoped the Republican Convention would draft him in 1928. If that were the case, the Republicans’ stampede to nominate Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover must have broken his heart.
Some, myself included, think that Coolidge probably suspected what was about to happen and didn’t want the economy to collapse on his watch. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 didn’t occur until seven months after he left office. George W. Bush wasn’t so lucky. While both Coolidge and Bush appeared clueless, neither was a stupid man; but neither one of them was ever truly in charge. Coolidge had Herbert Hoover, and Bush had Dick Cheney.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), the last president of the Progressive Era (1901-1921), assessed Coolidge as being “no one in particular.” Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), the first president of the Progressive Era, had an uncontrollable daughter named Alice. She described Coolidge as having been “weaned on a pickle” – presumably she meant dill. The infamously acerbic journalist of the Baltimore Sun newspaper, H. L. Mencken, said of Coolidge, “He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”
When writer Dorothy Parker was told of Coolidge’s death in Jan. 1933, she asked, “How can you tell?” Mencken had said of Coolidge, “I’ve never seen a man sleep so much.” Coolidge took afternoon naps from 1 to 5. I wonder what Mencken would have thought of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had given orders to be waked up any time he was needed – even if it was during a cabinet meeting.
Historian Thomas Bailey observed that Coolidge was “a reluctant refugee from the 19th century.” Likewise, the extremists who have taken over the Republican Party in the last 30 years and those in the TEA Party seem to want to return to the Gilded Age (1877-1900). Coolidge explained it best: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.”* Laissez-faire capitalism is their ideal: a handout government to Big Business with a hands-off policy – no government regulation of Big Business to protect the people or the environment.
Rand Paul seems to be the perfect plutocratic candidate for the Gilded Age or Coolidge’s 1920’s. The recent TEA Party winner of the Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky denounced President Obama for chastising BP for its catastrophic oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of BP’s history of carelessness, Paul said we should just accept that “accidents happen.”
The farmers throughout the 1920’s had been in a state of depression ever since the end of World War I. When Congress passed a bill to attempt to bring some relief to them, Coolidge vetoed it. He said that “When things are going well, it’s a good plan to leave them alone.” He sounds like a forerunner to the TEA Party, doesn’t he?
Humorist Will Rogers reminded us that even though Coolidge wasn’t much of a president, he did exactly what he was elected to do – and he wasn’t elected to do or change anything. That seems to be exactly what the Republican Party of Hell No and the TEA Party want President Barack Obama to do now – nothing. What Bush-Cheney did to us was just what they wanted, and nothing needs to be done to fix anything.
Coolidge happened to be president during most of the “Roaring Twenties.” It was a time when everyone seemed to be playing the market. Anyone could borrow money to invest in stocks. The stocks would always increase in value. Investors could always sell high, pay back the loans, and reap hefty profits. And we all know how infallible Wall Street is when it’s completely unregulated – right?
Early in my teaching career, I considered Coolidge to have been one of our worst presidents. In fact, I ranked him 2nd from the bottom – with Richard Nixon being the worst. I have since elevated him to 9th from the bottom, just above James Buchanan with both receiving a grade of “D.” (See Presidential Greatness: David Offutt’s Grading of the Presidents under the Grading the Presidents category.)
The architect of the Great Depression was Herbert Hoover, not Coolidge. Since Hoover’s policies ran the U. S. economy for Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge, and himself, he deserves to be held accountable. Hoover’s “trickle-down economics” was duplicated by Ronald Reagan’s “supply-side economics” and by “Bushonomics” with the same predictably disastrous results.
Ideologically, President Coolidge was a precursor to today’s TEA Party: a firm believer in rule by the wealthy, the plutocrats; no regulation of Big Business; thrift in government; and no government spending to help the common people. However, Coolidge’s support for Hoover’s overall economic policies and for Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon’s tax cuts for the wealthy (reduced by 66 % ) resulted in the Great Depression. TEA Party members seem to have completely missed the historical lessons of the Coolidge Era.
Coolidge wasn’t angry and didn’t mindlessly rant and rave like many of the recent TEA baggers. Although he was known as “Silent Cal,” he was actually quite talkative and was a funny and interesting man. Those who attended witnessed that aspect of him on June 3 under the Chautauqua tent at the museum.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published June 12, 2010, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.
*A few days before the show, Jim Cooke correctly pointed out to me via an e-mail message that Coolidge’s most famous quote (“The business of America is business.”) is not what he actually said. According to Cyndy Bittinger, former Executive Director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, the quote I have used in the revised text above is what Coolidge really did say in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925.