By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Business of America
Progressives and the Business Culture
II. A Puritan in Babylon
In short, normalcy was working, and the American people had voted for more of it. After an extended discussion of international affairs emphasizing the nation's independence and desire for peace, Coolidge emphasized to foe and friend alike that "[t]his Administration has come into power with a very clear and definite mandate from the people," and, as such, they expected from Republicans in Congress "such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government." What's more, Coolidge averred, La Follettism had been roundly rejected:
The expression of the popular will in favor of maintaining our constitutional guarantees was overwhelming and decisive. There was a manifestation of such faith in the integrity of the courts that we can consider that issue rejected for some time to come. Likewise, the policy of public ownership of railroads and certain electric utilities met with unmistakable defeat. The people declared that they wanted their rights to have not a political but a judicial determination, and their independence and freedom continued and supported by having the ownership and control of their property, not in the Government, but in their own hands. As they always do when they have a fair chance, the people demonstrated that they are sound and are determined to have a sound government.2"The last election showed that appeals to class and nationality had little effect," Coolidge concluded. "We were all found loyal to a common citizenship." Instead, he maintained, the American people had voted "with the greatest clearness" for "economy in public expenditure with reduction and reform of taxation…Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form." This was the great task before the nation -- "not to secure new advantages but to maintain those which we already possess" -- to continue normalcy, as the American people had demanded at the ballot box.3
While ideologically on the same page as his predecessor, in terms of temperament Coolidge was quite a different bird altogether. For one, while Harding was a sociable sort of the hail-fellow-well-met variety, the very embodiment of a small-town newspaperman, Coolidge was a shy and reticent man. While the friends he made were often lifelong ones -- his college classmate Dwight Morrow, for example -- and while Coolidge continued the Harding tradition of meeting visitors to the White House at lunch, the president did not let newcomers past his psychological defenses easily, and thus often seemed visibly awkward around people he did not know. "When I was a little fellow," he once told another friend, Frank Stearns, "as long ago as I can remember, I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the house. I felt I just couldn't meet the people and shake hands with them…the hardest thing in the world was to have to go through the kitchen door and give them a greeting…I'm all right with old friends, but every time I meet a stranger, I've got to go through the old kitchen door, back home, and it's not easy." (Perhaps in part for this reason, Coolidge was also, in the words of Film Classic magazine, "the first national executive to depend on motion pictures as his sole recreation." Sitting in the dark and taking in a film was a much more relaxing pastime for someone of Coolidge's shy disposition than the poker games that marked Harding's tenure.)4
However shy from the onset, Coolidge was further scarred by the death of his mother Victoria (who died when he was 13) and sister Abbie (who perished five years later). As such Coolidge possessed many of the earmarks of a man whose adult personality had been formed in grief. As Edmund Starling noted, his "outward reticence and aloofness were part of a protective shell" to separate himself from the world. In fact, the president's taciturn nature concealed a sense of humor that was mordant, ironic about the ways that the world can be embittering, and often even caustic. "Mr. Coolidge," wrote Will Rogers, "has a more subtle humor than almost any public man I have ever met." He could also be prone to black moods, short-tempered, and, in his penchant for nicknames and practical jokes, even cruel to his subordinates. (For example, Coolidge, who called his butler Thomas Roach "Bug," would ring the buzzer informing his staff he was on his way, then go out for a walk.) The White House Chief Usher, Ike Hoover, argued that his staff was often in "fear and trembling, lest they lose their jobs" and "a state of constant anxiety" on account of the president's temper.5
If anything, two further losses compounded these traits during Coolidge's time in office. In the summer of 1924, the president's beloved son Calvin Jr., after developing a blister playing tennis with his brother, acquired a case of severe blood poisoning. Naturally, he received the best medical attention of the time at both the White House and later Walter Reed hospital. To cheer Calvin Jr., Coolidge gave him a rabbit he had caught on the grounds and a family heirloom - a locket that contained a picture of his own mother Victoria and a lock of her hair. Neither medical science nor these totems worked. A fortnight after that casual tennis game, Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was dead at the age of sixteen, his fate soon broadcast to the momentarily-quiet Democratic conventioneers at Madison Square Garden. "The president was a stricken man," Edmund Starling remembered, "going about as if in a dream." And so, even as Charles Dawes raced coast to coast to vilify La Folletteism and whip up praise for Coolidge, the president was benumbed to it all. "I don't know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House," Coolidge later wrote of his son's death. "When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him." By all accounts, the president lapsed in to a deep despair upon Cal Jr.'s passing, and the death of his stern Yankee father John in 1926, at the age of 81, only added further weight to the president's grief.6
The president's more outgoing wife, Grace Coolidge, shared these trials, of course. But, unlike the Duchess, who had been both privy to and an active counselor in Warren Harding's political decisions, Coolidge, while undeniably enamored of her, tended to keep his spouse at an arm's distance. "Grace, we don't give that information out promiscuously," the president told the First Lady once, when she asked about his schedule. When Coolidge announced in 1928 that he would not run for another term, Grace Coolidge found out about it from the newspapermen asking her opinion on the matter. ("What announcement?" was her initial reply.)7
However, quiet by nature, Coolidge was also a canny fellow when it came to politics and the arts of political theater, and was an especially pioneering figure in the White House when it came to using newsreels, radio, and the photo-op. ("It was a joke among the photographers," one journalist remembered, "that Mr. Coolidge would don any attire or assume any pose that would produce an interesting picture. He was never too busy to be photographed.") And so, working with fellow Amherst graduate Bruce Barton, one of the master publicists of his day, as well as, less often, with pioneering advertiser Edward Bernays, Coolidge worked to make of his defects political virtues and to cultivate the aura of "Silent Cal." "Less than five percent of the people of America today are doing 95 percent of the talking," Barton wrote in Collier's while Coolidge was still governor of Massachusetts. "[B]ut the great majority of Americans are neither radicals nor reactionaries. They are middle-of-the-road folks who own their own homes and work hard…Coolidge belongs with that crowd."8
Throughout his presidency, Coolidge and Barton would continue to refine the "Silent Cal" mystique, giving the president an alter ego of the archetypal strong, silent man of action that the real Coolidge was all too happy to embody. When one society matriarch told the president that "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you," Coolidge replied, "You lose." The president could be "silent in five languages," as one wag put it. "A crowd of us in Cambridge sat around one night after dinner," Felix Frankfurter remembered late in life, "and the game was what single word most comprehensively conveyed the quality of Coolidge. I think the prize was awarded to my wife. She said 'Arid.'" And, when Coolidge himself died in early 1933 - just before Franklin Roosevelt would begin to overturn his legacy of budgetary retrenchment - humorist Dorothy Parker famously quipped, "How could they tell?"9
In fact, Coolidge -- if you knew him or it was his business to know you -- wasn't particularly silent at all. Cordell Hull noted he "talked freely and easily…and was as affable as I could have wished." Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, Coolidge would hold private press conferences at which he would prove quite chatty - although he received the questions written in advance and often spoke on background in the guise of "White House spokesman" And, as Harold Ickes told Hiram Johnson during one of his anti-Coolidge tirades, Sam Blythe of The Saturday Evening Post had called Coolidge "one of the most talkative men he had ever met in public life." "The Coolidge tactics are plain enough and they aren't lacking in cleverness," Ickes told Johnson. "He will sit still and say as little as possible so as not to give the opposition any opening that can be avoided…[H]is taciturnity is either a hesitation to commit himself or stage acting or a combination of both."10
Ickes was on to something. Coolidge's silence was not just a selling point for publicity purposes -- It was often a negotiating strategy as well. "Nine tenths of a president's callers at the White House want something they ought not to have," Coolidge advised his successor. "If you keep still, they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again." To Bernard Baruch, Coolidge said his manner of leadership was to "say only 'yes' or 'no' to people. Even this is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes or more." This hands-off approach extended to Coolidge's work habits as well. While Harding had spent long days and nights struggling to keep up with his responsibilities, Coolidge only put in a few hours of work each morning before settling in for an afternoon nap. (Anyone who had to work into the night to finish a day's work, Coolidge told his Secret Service man, probably wasn't particularly intelligent.) To the readers of his autobiography, Coolidge advised as the "first rule of action" to "never do…anything that someone else can do for you."11
Indeed, the president's penchant for inaction was a legendary in some circles as his taciturnity. Coolidge's restraint in word and deed, wrote Walter Lippmann, were a tonic for a nation that "can afford luxury and are buying it furiously, largely on the installment plan…At a time when Puritanism as a way of life is at its lowest ebb among the people, the people are delight with a Puritan as their national symbol..[Through Coolidge] we have attained a Puritanism de luxe in which it is possible to praise the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences." More to the point, Lippmann argued, it is important to recognize that "Mr. Coolidge's genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point," and was not at all just a reflex of habit, but part and parcel of his philosophy of government. "It is far from being an indolent activity," Lippmann argued. "It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly:"
Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for a soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge's inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity where there are signs of life.12Just as impressive to Lippmann was Coolidge's amazing mastery of the "art of deflating interest…The naïve statesmen of the pre-Coolidge era imagined that it was desirable to interest the people in their government, that indignation at evil was useful. Mr. Coolidge is more sophisticated. He has discovered the value of diverting attention from the government, and with an exquisite subtlety that amounts to genius, he has used dullness and boredom as political devices." Take, Lippmann noted, the example of Teapot Dome, which theoretically should have destroyed Coolidge's administration from Day 1:
They hit his party an awful blow. They knocked three members out of his Cabinet and covered them with disgrace. And what happened? Did Mr. Coolidge defend his Cabinet? He did not. Did he prosecute the grafters? Not very fiercely. He managed to get the public so bored that they could bear it no longer, and to make the Democrats thoroughly disliked for raising such a dull row. It was superb. To every yawp Mr. Coolidge can match a yawn.13H.L. Mencken also came around to the same line of thinking. After the 1924 election, Mencken thought the president, "for all the high encomiums lavished upon him, at bottom simply a cheap and trashy fellow, deficient in sense and almost devoid of any notion of honor - in brief, a dreadful little cad." By late 1927, Mencken argued that Coolidge "will pass from the Presidency as he came to it - a dull and docile drudge, loving the more tedious forms of ease, without imagination…Human existence, as he sees it, is something to be got through with the least possible labor and fretting. His ideal day is one on which nothing whatever happens." As for the major pressing issues of the day, Coolidge's "characteristic way of dealing with them is simply to evade them, as a sensible man evades an insurance solicitor or his wife's relatives."14
But, reflecting on Coolidge once again at his death in 1933, Mencken divined the method to his madness. "His record as President, in fact, is almost a blank. No one remembers anything that he did or anything that he said," Mencken claimed. But "Coolidge, whatever his faults otherwise, was at all events the complete antithesis of the bombastic pedagogue, Wilson…If the day ever comes when Jefferson's writings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Cal's bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service."15
William Allen White also thought Coolidge's laconic approach to the presidency was the whole point of the exercise. "I didn't expect you to like the Coolidge book," he wrote to Harold Ickes of A Puritan in Babylon, "and yet I do think the old man is a mystic. Old Scrooge was a mystic. He had faith in the divine character of wealth as much as Lincoln in the divine character of man." Ebenezer Scrooge and Coolidge, White contended, "both believe that Commerce is a sacrosanct matter. They are whirling dervishes of business, just as blind in their faith as Roosevelt and La Follette were blind in their faith in the people and in the nobility of man and the righteousness of the judgments of God. The fact that I don't agree with this thesis doesn't blind me to the fact that he is crazy about it, sincerely, genuinely, terribly crazy."16
So it was that "the business of America is business" became the phrase most often associated with Calvin Coolidge in the American public mind. (In fact, this is a misquote: "The chief business of the American people is business," Coolidge had told an assembled gathering of newspaper editors in January 1925, while going on to argue, in similarly tautological and Gamalielese fashion, that "the chief ideal of the American people is idealism.") Just as the Business Organization of the Government was the one aspect of the job that seemed to kindle his passions, it was espousing the principles of hard work, thrift, economy, efficiency, and non-interference in the private sector that seemed to move Coolidge to his loftiest feats of rhetoric. "The man who builds a factory builds a temple," he declared. "The man who works there worships there." If nothing else, the president -- and the two most important of his inherited lieutenants, Herbert Hoover and Andy Mellon -- would do what they could to knock down the barriers separating this new church from the state.17
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4. Greenberg, 19, 56, 58.
5. Greenberg, 8, 17, 59.
6. Greenberg, 97-98, 154-155. David Farber, "Calvin Coolidge," in Brinkley and Dyer, The American Presidency, 328.
7. Greenberg, 59, 138. Coolidge, according to historian David Farber, also "commanded" his wife "that she not drive, ride horseback, wear slacks, or state any political view." Brinkley, The American Presidency, 330.
8. Greenberg, 7, 34-35, 64.
9. Greenberg, 8-10. Frankfurter, 193.
10. Greenberg, 9, 62-63. Harold Ickes to Hiram Johnson, September 24, 1923. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
11. Greenberg, 9. 56-57. Farber, "Calvin Coolidge," in Brinkley and Dyer, The American Presidency, 330.
12. Lippmann, Men of Destiny, 13.
13. Ibid, 13-14.
14. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 114-115, 125-127.
15. Ibid, 135.
16. White to Ickes, March 18, 1926. White, Selected Letters, 255.
17. Cyndi Bittinger, "The Business of America is Business?" Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation (http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/html/the_business_of_america_is_bus.html). Farber, "Calvin Coolidge," in Brinkley and Dyer, The American Presidency, 325. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 57.
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