Monday, March 18, 2013

Hearing Coolidge and one of his 1924 opponents

The more that I have thought about the NYT review of Amity Shlaes new book on our thirtieth president, the more I am annoyed.   The reviewer diddled around with the substance of the book and then came up with the conclusion that Coolidge was "an extraordinarily blinkered and foolish and complacent leader."    While I was surfing the net the other day I came across this newsreel footage of Coolidge which in about four minutes summarizes the case that Coolidge made for his re-election.  The book talks about the three candidates using the new medium of film to give short campaign speeches.  This seems to be one of them.

Clearly, the "it takes a village" groupies would disagree with Coolidge's thoughts.  But as you review what Coolidge had to say, there are some very contemporary themes.  The thirtieth president would not be a media darling today.   I suspect his two opponents would also not fit into the the celebrity model of politicians.   Here is Robert LaFollette's speech in 1924 (who was the Progressive candidate that year) -

(Unfortunately, Youtube does not contain any footage from the Democrat candidate that year, John W. Davis.)
Coolidge, had some interesting challenges in his election campaign.  He needed to uphold the positive part of the Harding legacy (although as one of my professors as an undergraduate once said, the best thing that Harding did for the country was to die).  At the same time he had made a strong commitment to a tax policy which dramatically lowered rates (even after a partial defeat before the election on his and Mellon's tax proposal), he wanted to reduce the size of government in total terms - both as a result of the peacetime dividend of the end of WWI but also in absolute terms.   He lived in an environment when politicians he worked with could not be counted on to not pursue their own ambitions. (Gee, that is new also.)  But in the end he was successful in a number of key areas.

There are many issues during the time that seem out of place.  The headlong rush to reduce the size of the military worldwide (adopted in the Kellogg pact) seems naive and it was signed on Coolidge's watch - although there was considerable support for the effort across the political spectrum.   The opposition to anti-lynching laws (Coolidge supported the enactment of anti-lynching laws) also seems a bad part of our history.

At the same time the notion that government has proper limits has never been more clear.   To call Coolidge "blinker, foolish and complacent" is just another demonstration of the "blinkered, foolish and complacent" state of contemporary journalism.

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