Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Coolidge: a Symbol of the Twenties

President Calvin Coolidge not only worked to implement his political agenda of personal political liberty and economic freedom, but he became a popular symbol for his era, even among his detractors.

The 1920s saw the emergence of technologies like film and radio into the mainstream consciousness. These, in turn, ushered in new styles like jazz and Art Deco.

Coolidge had little or nothing to do with these trends in popular culture, and in fact retained the aura of the earlier generation from which he came. Yet he embraced the technology as a way to explain his agenda to the voters. Citizens were already accustomed to seeing photographs of their presidents, but Coolidge was the first president whose voice and moving image became familiar to the public.

While Coolidge’s predecessor, Harding, had been a commanding orator, speaking to crowds of thousands, Coolidge became regular on the radio. Historian Amity Shlaes writes:

The radio, the new medium, had proved Coolidge’s friend. On the radio you didn’t need to have a strong voice but a clear one. And Coolidge’s was clear - it had wire in it, as someone would say later.

While he was, by nature and by reputation, taciturn, he gave 520 press conferences during his presidency, more than any other president, before or after. There is a paradox in the fact that the president who was so reticent that he earned the nickname ‘Silent Cal’ was also the president who frequently exploited the medium of radio and the occasions of press conferences.

Because of his comfort with, and skilled use of, the media, Coolidge became an image in the popular consciousness. Historian David Greenberg writes:

President from 1923, when he acceded to the office upon the sudden death of Warren Harding, until 1929, when he retired after forswearing a second full term, Coolidge was enormously popular throughout his tenure - an icon of his era every bit as much as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, or Charlie Chaplin.

Becoming icon entails the risk of become a caricature, which includes a loss of substance. The image and popularity of Coolidge belie the complexity and rigor of his economic thought.

Meticulously, Coolidge combed through the federal budget, searching for any chance to unburden the taxpayers. His thoroughness was targeted at finding ways to cut spending, cut taxes, balance the federal budget, reduce the deficit, and reduce the debt.

Keeping the federal budget roughly the same from year to year, while the economy grew significantly, was a way to reduce the burden on the ordinary taxpayer. Andrew Mellon was already Secretary of the Treasury before Coolidge took office. Historian Robert Ferrell writes:

The main contours of the budget, the object of cooperation between Mellon and Coolidge, are not difficult to relate. In the 1920s, the size of the budget remained virtually the same, after it decreased from the wartime era. In fiscal year 1921 (July 1920 through June 1921), federal expenditures were $5.1 billion; in fiscal year 1922, $3.3 billion. They stayed there during the Coolidge presidency, amounting in 1923 to $3.294 billion and in 1929 to $3.298 billion. Sources of revenue changed a great deal from prewar years. In 1913, one-third of the federal budget was from excise taxes on liquor, two-thirds from the tobacco tax and the tariff. In 1930, with no liquor tax, one-third came from tobacco and the tariff, one-third from personal income tax, and one-third from corporate income tax. The income tax, permitted by the Sixteenth Amendment, had gone into effect during the war.

The triumph of Coolidge’s economic policy not only eased the tax burden on citizens at all income levels, from the lowest to the highest, but also boosted employment levels and wages at all levels. The prosperity which Coolidge brought permeated all sectors and regions.

He also paid off a significant fraction of the national debt, a rarity in economic history.

Beyond economics, Coolidge made progress in extending personal liberty. He sharply denied the KKK’s attempt to gain more influence in national politics, departing from the pattern of the Wilson administration’s fondness for the Klan.

Coolidge encouraged Congress to pass anti-lynching laws, and became the first incumbent president to deliver a commencement address at a historically Black college when he spoke at Howard University in 1924. He was consistently popular with African-American voters.

In foreign policy, Coolidge worked to keep Europe stable. Despite, or because of, the treaties which ended the war, tensions between nations continued to simmer. Coolidge wanted to prevent another war.

Coolidge encouraged Charles Dawes to implement a plan to make the payment schedule for war reparations more realistic. The Dawes Plan went into effect in 1924, and Dawes later became Coolidge’s vice president.

Coolidge’s Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, negotiated the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to organize negotiated and diplomatic opportunities to address conflicts before they escalated into war. The pact was finalized in 1928.