Keep Cool With Coolidge


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"When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results."
                                               CALVIN COOLIDGE

coolidgeThere was one very sour note for the Republicans in the 1924 Presidential campaign. The unfolding Teapot Dome scandal had begun to demonstrate that the Ohio Gang's two-year-and-five-month visit in Washington very likely had set an all-time record for thievery and corruption in the national government. This was the story:

Three months after taking office President Harding signed an executive order turning over to his Interior Department the custody of the government oil fields at Elk Hills and Buena Vista, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The reserves since 1909 had reposed under the Navy's jurisdiction as a gigantic defense store. Harding's Secretary of the Interior, Albert M. Fall, had many dear friends among the private oil interests and in 1922 he leased the Teapot Dome Reserve to Harry F. Sinclair's Mammoth Oil Company and the Elks Hills Reserve to Edward F. Doheny's Pan-American Company. The leases were made in secret. Capitol Hill never knew the war reserves were in private hands until a Wyoming oilman wrote to his congressman and wanted to know how come Harry Sinclair had been able to lease Teapot Dome without competitive bidding. The resulting senatorial inquiry, under the tireless Tom Walsh of Montana, produced astonishing revelations.

albert fallIt turned out that Fall had received $260,000 in Liberty bonds as "loans" from Sinclair and $100,000 in cash from Doheny. The immensely wealthy Doheny told the investigators that he had sent his son over with the money, nesting in a little black satchel, because his old friend Fall wanted to buy a new ranch in New Mexico and needed a stake. He said it was "a mere bagatelle" to him and he saw nothing improper in lending money to the Secretary of the Interior who was about to lease the nation's oil reserves to him for his personal profit.

In the eventual trials, Fall drew a year's jail sentence for accepting a bribe from Doheny but Doheny, tried separately, was found not guilty of paying any bribe to Fall. Sinclair beat the case against him but was jailed years later on two counts: contempt of the Senate and contempt of court for having a Burns detective shadow the jury in one of his trials.

jess smithThere was an embarrassing sidelight in the oil scandal having to do with Sinclair's fiscal relations with the Republican National Committee. It turned out that the promoter had helped pay off the costs of the Harding campaign with a gift of $75,000 and a "loan" of $185,000 for which he had taken only $100,000 in repayment. The Republican chairman at the time happened to be Will Hays, later lured away by Hollywood's moguls as the ideal man to police movie morals.

On another front, in 1927, the long arm of scandal fell heavily on Harry Daugherty. The former Attorney General had to stand trial after the Harding Administration's Alien Property Custodian, Thomas W. Miller, was sent to jail because $50,000 stuck to his hands in a curious transaction in which the American Metal Companyoriginally deemed to be owned by a German bankmanaged to recover $6,000,000 in war-seized assets. The company paid out a total of $441,000 for various services in the process of getting its money back, and another party who picked up $50,000 was Jess Smith, Daugherty's roommate and lifetime buddy. daughertyWhile Smith took his own life long before this item came out, Daugherty was hauled into court because circumstantial evidence placed him somewhere in the lush Metal Company deal; however, a jury acquitted him after deliberating for 66 hours.

In the 1924 campaign, as it happened, the Republicans had an antidote for such of the Harding scandals as were already in the public record. Their candidate was Calvin Coolidge and he himself had ushered out of the Cabinet not only Albert Fall but also Secretary of the Navy Edwin L. Denby, in bad repute for maintaining too much silence when the nation's oil reserves were being wrested from his hands and handed over to Fall. So the candidate's own halo of primitive Yankee honesty was secure; it would never tilt. Indeed, if anyone were needed to clean up the oil-smeared Potomac reservation, the man from Vermont fitted the role perfectly. There would be no fast-buck guys around the White House while he had the key. Beyond this happy circumstance, there appeared to be enough prosperity in the heady air to override Teapot Dome and any disclosures to come.

davislafolletteAnd, better still, Senator Robert M. LaFollette had entered the presidential sweepstakes on the Progressive ticket. His vote figured to dissipate whatever long-shot chance the badly split Democrats might have had with their compromise candidate, John W. Davis, picked on a record one-hundred-third ballot only after the long deadlock between Alfred E. Smith and William G. McAdoo and the blistering July heat in New York had wilted the convention delegates.

Thus, as the campaign proceeded, Time magazine was able to report week after week that while Davis rolled through the whistle-stops "Cal Coolidge sat tight and kept his peace." Why not? The Republican slogan was "Keep Cool With Coolidge"; why get into needless debates on the issues? Why debate the Harding record? He was dead. Why debate the recurrent Davis cry that the Republicans were the party of Big Business and wouldn't do anything for the little man? "This is a business country," Coolidge said in his one radio speech, with the United States Chamber of Commerce as his host, "it wants a business government." He must have been right. He drew 15,725,016 votes against 8,386,503 for Davis and 4,822,856 for LaFollette.

first lady/presidentIn the next four years Coolidge demonstrated, if nothing else, that he was the most relaxed Chief Executive the nation ever had. Irwin (Ike) Hoover, the White House's Chief Usher, said the President usually found time for a two-to-four-hour afternoon nap. When he didn't, he might rock on the porch for a while, watching the Model T's going by on Pennsylvania Avenue, feasting on the good expanse of lawn, or perhaps dwelling idly on the great abundance that lay over the land. When Will Rogers asked him how he kept fit, he said, "By avoiding the big problems."

Coolidge avoided all manner of problems, big and little. He steered clear of the Prohibition mess, simply issuing an occasional manifesto saying the law really should be obeyed; unlike his predecessor, he could honestly claim that he for one wasn't helping the bootleggers by using their stuff. He didn't get too deep into foreign coolidgeaffairs either, letting far-away Europe sweat out its own reconstruction problems. On the broader domestic scene, he kept an eye peeled to see that no new-fangled ideas crept into government; things were all right the way they were. He put the lid on suggestions that Washington do something about the frenzied speculation in Wall Street. "Civilization and profits go hand in hand," he said once; the financial community knew what it was doing.

coolidge/jonesYears later, when the notion was put forth that Coolidge had spurned another term because he foresaw the Depression, H.L. Mencken entered a strong dissent in the Baltimore Sun. "He showed not the slightest sign that he smelt black clouds ahead," Mencken said. "On the contrary, he talked and lived only sunshine. There was a volcano boiling under him, but he did not know it. Here, indeed, was his one really notable talent. He slept more than any other President, whether by day or night.
Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored." Irving Stone, in an essay
called "A coolidge bustStudy in Inertia," noted that the passive country squire in the White House "believed that the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least President the country ever had; he attained his desire." The Beards were more genteel in their judgment of New England's favorite son. "Never in all his career," said the historians, "had he shocked his neighbors by advocating strange things prematurely; neither had he been the last of the faithful to appear on the scene in appropriate armor. Conciliation and prudence had been his watchwords; patience and simplicity his symbols of life."

The man himself made no large claims about his horizons. "There is only one form of political strategy in which I have any confidence," his autobiography said, "and that is to try to do the right thing and sometimes succeed." The Yankee President did succeed. He managed five years and seven months in the White House without getting into any kind of trouble. He went out of office"I do not choose to run for President in 1928," he saidwearing all kinds of garlands, and there would be no surgical examination of his reign until after the Great Crash of 1929. Not till then would the post mortems cast some doubt on the record and much-heralded wisdom of Calvin Coolidge.

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