[October 4th marks the 200th birthday of Rutherford B. Hayes, a good-looking young man who went on to be a very bad-governing president. So this week I’ll contextualize Hayes and four other under-remembered bad (in the least good sense) chief executives, leading up to a weekend post on the worst we’ve ever had.]
How a pre-presidency moment foreshadows the worst of a 1920s administration.
As part of my September 2015 series on Dennis Lehane’s masterful historical novel The Given Day (2008) I wrote about the 1919 Boston Police Strike. That historical event provides the starting point for my ideas in this post, so I’d ask you to check that hyperlinked post out if you would and then come on back here for more.
Welcome back! Calvin Coolidge had already been a Massachusetts State Senator, Lieutenant Governor, and then Governor by 1919, but it was his opposition to the police strike which truly launched the 47 year-old Coolidge onto the national scene and stardom within the Republican Party (which led to his nomination as Warren Harding’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1920). It’s logical enough that the governor of a state would oppose a labor action by public employees in that state, but it was the extreme way in which Coolidge framed the police strike that truly stood out to observers around the country. He didn’t go quite as far as President Woodrow Wilson, who called the strike “a crime against civilization.” But in a September 1919 telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers that went viral, Coolidge quoted Wilson’s line approvingly and added that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, at any time,” a stridently anti-labor assertion that directly contributed to such larger narratives of the strikers and the labor movement as a whole as not only outside of their rights, but fundamentally outside of American society and identity as well.
When President Harding died suddenly of a heart attack while in San Francisco as part of a speaking tour in the summer of 1923, his relatively unknown Vice President became President. Coolidge’s legendarily taciturn nature meant that he remained somewhat unknown through his 5+ years as president, but one famous quote is particularly telling: addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors in January 1925, President Coolidge argued that “the chief business of the American people is business.” I would argue that taken together, a great deal of Coolidge’s administration can be summed up by these two moments and quotes: his thoroughgoing opposition to the 1919 labor action and his full-throated (especially for him!) support of business and the free market in that 1925 speech. From scaling back the Progressive-era regulatory state to levels not seen since the depths of the Gilded Age to extensive tax cuts that favored big business and the wealthy, Coolidge’s policies were driven again and again by this laissez faire worldview that favored money and industry over workers and collective action. Since all of that played a not-insignificant role in the oncoming Great Depression, I’d say it also makes Calvin Coolidge a pretty bad president.
Last bad president tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other baddies you’d highlight?