Amidst the swirl of scandals now consuming the Obama administration, one may find it instructive to reflect on eras during which our country was ruled by men of impeccable integrity and steadfast leadership. In the modern era, Ronald Reagan was the president who best fulfilled this role with his Cold War victory over the U.S.S.R., his active role in resuscitating a miserable U.S. economy, and his commanding presence before the national audience. In a more bygone era, Lincoln is usually recalled by historians for his presidential greatness given his demonstration of will in staring down a defiant Confederacy and his resolve in successfully prosecuting a war effort despite a lack of popular support and a series of woefully inept Union generals. Still, there were other presidents who may not have been afforded the crisis of war to help elevate their prominence, but nonetheless distinguished themselves for fulfilling their duty in a scrupulous and upright manner.
One such chief executive was Calvin Coolidge, the subject of the recent book, Coolidge, by Amity Schlaes. The defining moment of Coolidge’s political career did not happen during his presidency, however, but during his time as governor of Massachusetts. Against a backdrop of rising national labor unrest in 1919, recently created Boston Police Union #16807 struck over working conditions, pay and union recognition. Once the 1,000 man force deserted their posts on Tuesday, September 9, Boston promptly descended into a state of anarchy with looters rampaging through the city over the next few days and nights. Making matters worse, national leadership at the time was in absentia as the intellectual Woodrow Wilson was conveniently disengaged from the Boston situation, off on his vainglorious campaign to sell the League of Nations. But in the crucible of the moment, Governor Coolidge gathered his legal team and asserted control over the crisis, uncovering legal precedent authorizing him to call on auxiliary police forces and the state guard to preserve order, and casting aside the indecisiveness of Boston mayor, Andrew Peters. The following weekend Coolidge then engaged in an exchange of telegrams with Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor of which the Boston police union was now a member. In his response to Gompers’ plea to recognize the union’s cause, Coolidge rebuked the national union leader, concluding his response with the statement: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
By that point, Governor Coolidge had largely gained the upper hand in the crisis, with the state guard and volunteer police successfully reestablishing order. Coolidge had prevailed, and in doing so had thus elevated his name to national prominence. In Schlaes’ words: “…the fact itself could not be denied: he had upstaged a sitting president. The governor had stood firm on strikers where Wilson had vacillated, indeed was still vacillating. And if Coolidge could upstage a president, he could be president.”
Coolidge went on to be vice president under Harding in 1920 before succeeding the president after the death of Harding in August of 1923. Under the now deceased chief executive, the office of the President had been wracked with scandal and Harding’s ineptitude was born out. Coolidge would win the office outright in 1924 and serve for four more years, presiding over one of the more prosperous periods in American history. His attention to stimulative tax policy and reduced regulation helped ensure the economic vitality of the nation during his term while his immodest but principled leadership set the tone for his administration.
Coolidge lived for only a short while after leaving the office of the presidency, passing away in 1933. A commentary that perhaps best summarized his legacy came from New York governor Al Smith who stated: “Coolidge’s greatest feat had been to restore the dignity and prestige of the presidency when it had reached “the lowest ebb in our history.’” In Smith’s view, Coolidge was ‘”in the class of presidents who were distinguished for character more than for heroic achievements.’” From 1923 to 1928, America was truly blessed with the man who would restore honor and integrity to the office. In today’s America, we would be much better off with an individual of similar character.