“Best of Coolidge” Readings: Vice Presidential Years, Part 1

Kicking off the next three “Best of Coolidge” Readings from the Vice Presidential years, is this insightful speech entitled “The Limitations of the Law” delivered before the American Bar Association’s annual meeting held in San Francisco, August 10, 1922. While it could be said that the Supreme Court has made a few more errors of judgment than existed in Cal’s day, nevertheless, much of what he has to say here speaks just as loudly now as it did then.

Finding the Coolidge Rug’s Smaller Sister

“This, their expression of gratitude for what we have been able to do in this country for their aid, is accepted by me as a token of their goodwill to the people of the United States, who have assisted in the work of the Near East Relief. Will you be good enough to extend to these orphans my thanks and the thanks of the vast number of our citizens whose generosity this labor of love is intended to acknowledge? The rug has a place of honor in the White House, where it will be a daily symbol of good-will on earth…” To Dr. John H. Finley, Vice President of the Near East Relief Executive Board from President Calvin Coolidge, December 4, 1925.

President Coolidge and Dr. Finley admiring the beautiful rug hand-made by the orphans rescued by the Kunzlers, White House lawn, 1925.

President Coolidge and Dr. Finley admiring the beautiful rug hand-made by the orphans rescued by the Kunzlers, White House lawn, 1925.

With the rediscovery and renewed appreciation for America’s crucial participation in the efforts of Near East Relief that saved dozens of Armenian orphans from the genocide of their parents one hundred years ago, the “Coolidge Rug” was finally displayed in the White House last year. It would come as an equally inspiring discovery that the smaller Kunzler Rug (named for “Papa” and “Mama” Kunzler, who selflessly rescued and cared for some 8,000 young orphans left destitute) would then turn up after seventy years in the San Diego home of 97-year old Elibet Kunzler, daughter of the couple who did so much for so many.

It is a reminder of the kindness and gratitude shown out of something horrible and tragic. It is also a reminder that President Coolidge, and his country, were there to humbly serve, gladly welcome, and abundantly give to those who had lost so much. It is hardly accidental that America is home to the largest population of Armenians living abroad. As grandson of one of the survivors, Shant Mardirossian, observed, “I couldn’t be more proud of this history, that Americans who knew nothing about Armenians 8,000 miles away gave something to help them…In fact, one could even argue a whole generation of Armenians wouldn’t be here today had it not been for their support.” God bless America and the families of the Armenian orphans!

The Next Reag… ur, Coolidge?

Coolidge overlooking the Reagan Cabinet Room, 1981.

Coolidge overlooking the Reagan Cabinet Room, 1981.

It is demonstrative that real leadership and strong principles are at work when an abundant supply of “me too” candidates line up to claim the mantle and embrace the moniker of the man, whatever the era under whom we are living. Ronald Reagan, whose influence furnished so pivotal a shift in policy and, to a lesser degree, culture, was such a man. As the most determined turn away from decades of Big Government, which had been steadily growing since the 1930s, Reagan furnished the moral courage, personal confidence, and political vision (both domestically and internationally) glaringly absent from public life and yet enthusiastically yearned for by millions of folks across the country and around the world, especially after the fatalistic malaise emerging out of the 1960s and 70s under modern liberal ideologues on both sides.

However, the “Revolution,” crowned as it was with the success of Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, would encounter an equally determined counter-reaction by those who never really warmed (combined with those always hostile toward it) to a departure from the expansive government approach of FDR and LBJ. Some adopted — as victory always attracts fans — Reagan’s party label and even some of his rhetoric but never his vision or political philosophy. As such, history repeated a not too dissimilar outcome from the election of 1928, where the nominee campaigned on the record of his predecessor and then proceeded to marginalize and repudiate it once in office. As Reagan left the White House in 1989, it was thought the country understood what his eight years represented and why they were so successful. It turns out that even after the incredible turnaround that separated 1989 from where things were in 1981 was not enough to convince even an entire generation that what they had just experienced works. No situation is permanent, and population turned over drastically no less then than it does now. However, as leadership continued the course begun pre-Reagan, a seemingly endless train of candidates have been adopting his legacy as their own.

The last presidential campaign was no less characterized by this effort to present impeccable credentials as Reagan’s legitimate heir and rightful successor. Such is human nature but in so doing, an opportunity to teach, inform and educate, regarding the principles he espoused — and why they succeed — is treated as secondary, if acknowledged at all. Reagan’s first teachable moment came out of the Goldwater campaign of 1964, with the former’s “A Time for Choosing” speech. Coolidge’s first national moment, an occasion that came unsought, launched with his principled response to the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and its aftermath. In what is sure to be an interesting campaign of 2016, the door remains open to finally explain the principles of Coolidge and Reagan, not merely mimic or pay lip service to the men. Garland Tucker III poses a fascinating question for us. Should we be modeling after Reagan alone or are we missing the one who worked, taught, and led sixty years before him? Looking at Reagan’s successes and failures, are we settling for less? Are we not depriving ourselves of a more consistent, productive and, dare we say, more substantial example in the ideas and character of Calvin Coolidge?

Laying aside, for now: 1) the oft-made mistake that Reagan authored Gaylord Parkinson’s “11th Commandment” in 1965; 2) the insinuation that challenging other Republicans over policy and philosophical differences, especially in primaries, is equivalent to violating that Commandment, inherently showing a lack of civility (and thereby no credibility or kindness — which, if such insinuation holds would condemn both Reagan and Cal); and 3) the premise that either man is replicable in a political sense…should we really be looking for the next Ronald Reagan or should we be aiming higher, for the next Calvin Coolidge?

What do you think?

Calvin Coolidge, portrait completed posthumously by Frank O. Salisbury, 1934, for the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Calvin Coolidge, portrait completed posthumously by Frank O. Salisbury, 1934, for the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

A Letter to the Editor out in Rapid City, April 27, 2015

The Coolidges arrive in Rapid City, South Dakota, late afternoon on June 15, 1927. Here they are welcomed by Senator Norbeck (left) and Representative Williamson (right).

The Coolidges arrive in Rapid City, South Dakota, late afternoon on June 15, 1927. Here they are welcomed by Senator Norbeck (left) and Representative Williamson (right).

Take a look at this brief but interesting reminder that Coolidge’s thinking and political courage are alive and well, coincidentally, in one of his favorite Western locales, the fine town of Rapid City, South Dakota. Coolidge friends, enjoy this letter to the editor out today. Well said, Mr. Ginsbach! Pick up Cal’s autobiography too, while you read!

Next in the “Best of Coolidge” Readings

Governor Calvin Coolidge officially launches the 1920 campaign with his acceptance of the formal notification of his nomination as Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican Party at Smith College in Northampton. Given on July 27, 1920, Coolidge outlines the particulars of the GOP platform and embarks on what will eventually become nearly a ten-year endeavor to hold the Party to its electoral promises, political principles, and governing ideals. How prescient he would be is made clear with the hearing, especially as we head into the 2016 campaign. Enjoy this time capsule of political philosophy and stay tuned for more to come!

On A Heroic Day in A Heroic Land

Old North Church with the statue of Paul Revere in silhouette. Photo courtesy of Matt Conti.

The steeple of the Old North Church with the statue of Paul Revere in silhouette. Photo courtesy of Matt Conti.

“It was from that steeple, one hundred and forty-eight years ago to-night, that the signal-lanterns gleamed, warning the watchers on the Charlestown shore that the British troops were on the move toward Lexington and Concord. There seems no doubt that these lights were displayed by the sexton, Robert Newman. Probably he was assisted in entering the church by Captain John Pulling, Jr. Back of this activity and directing it was Doctor Joseph Warren, who was within three months to give his life for his country at Bunker Hill. He had two messengers that he despatched on this night to warn Hancock and Adams, who were at Lexington, and arouse the countryside to resist the advance of the hostile forces. One of these was William Dawes, whom he sent out over Boston Neck, and the other was Paul Revere. It was Revere who arranged for the display of the signals which, as it turned out, were unnecessary, because he himself coming directly from Doctor Warren was stealthily rowed across the river, almost under the British war-ships, to Charlestown. He had been one of the moving spirits in a band of mechanics at the North End, organized to watch and report on all British actions. He knew what was acting, as he himself said, but had he been intercepted in crossing, as he feared, the lanterns would have conveyed the correct message to his confederate, Colonel Conant, who was waiting and received him on his landing. It is because his ride on this night was the consummation of a long period of watching and working, largely under his immediate oversight, that Paul Revere rises to the plane of true heroism. It was his plan and preparation, as well as his execution of it, that gave him the authority in that eventful hour to speak

     ‘A word that shall echo forevermore!’

“And yet it was because his word was received and acted upon that he rose to so grand a place in history. He became a hero only because the land was filled with heroism” — Calvin Coolidge, speaking in 1923 on the events of April 18, 1775, that would lead to the Battles of Concord and Lexington the following day, this day two hundred and forty years ago, that launched from the legendary Old North Church in Boston.

Coolidge reiterates that what made these events so pivotal was the preparations taken day after day by courageous and faith-filled men and women, to take in their own hands the risks worth taking to warn of danger and oppose despotic forces when they mobilized. What made the patriot Revere successful was not only that he made himself ready when the time came to act, he found unflagging support among a people which loved their country, a land of heroism. If liberty is to remain here and tyranny is to checked in its march, we cannot assume that all we need is one Paul Revere to ride in and save us. Capture or worse awaits such a tactic, one individual at a time. If we intend to stop the advance of evil, that love and courage must be kindled anew in as many of us as possible. We have to become again, as Coolidge observed, a land of heroes.

On the Veto Power

“If it were not for the rules of the House and the veto power of the President, within two years these activities [expensive legislation] would double the cost of the government…Different departments and bureaus are frequently supporting measures that would make them self-perpetuating bodies to which no appointments could be made that they did not originate. While I have always sought cooperation and advice, I have likewise resisted these efforts, sometimes by refusing to adopt recommendations and sometimes by the exercise of the veto power. One of the farm relief bills, and later a public health measure, had these clearly unconstitutional limitations on the power of appointment. In the defense of the rights and liberties of the people it is necessary for the President to resist all encroachments upon his lawful authority” — Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography pp.230, 234.

Coolidge understood the importance of preserving the constitutional powers of the Presidency, that there were responsibilities and counterbalancing checks to be jealously guarded not to be handed over to the National Legislature. The Executive was not to weaken under his tenure, it would face two major Supreme Court challenges (the “Pocket Veto Case,” 279 U.S. 655 [1929] and Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52 [1926]), four legislative overrides, survive a fifth attempt by Congress to undo Coolidge’s veto, and be left unchallenged forty-one times. It is also noteworthy that most of these vetoes occurred during his second term, especially in the last two years of his administration. This is noteworthy because many Presidents expend political capital, exhaust momentum, and deplete energy so that by the close of their time, little resistance is made against the onslaught of public spending, patronage, and constant resort to the Treasury. While Coolidge did not let up from beginning to end, it could almost be said that he became more tenacious about waste and favoritism in the use of our funds. The claim some have made that Coolidge was too depressed and worn out to continue the work begun before his son’s death, do not adequately account for this important component of his unremitting activity to secure the President’s powers under the Constitution, restraining the ease with which Congress and the various bureaus and agencies use the money of others.

These informative charts give both historical perspective to the use of the President’s veto power, provided by Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, but also take a closer examination of Coolidge’s particular use of that authority during nearly six years in office. Enjoy!

First, though, the list of his vetoes:

The Coolidge Fifty

Now, a closer look at the tradition of Presidential veto use:

It is interesting to note that the Presidential veto was used sparingly in America's early years, a mere 31 times before the first Congressional override which occurred on March 3, 1845, countering President John Tyler's veto of special legislation for revenue cutters and steamers. Not until Pierce and again with Andrew Johnson would Presidents experience the Congressional countermand of veto power, both men undergoing the dubious and unique distinction of seeing more vetoes thrown out than sustained. While Ford came close, no other President has witnessed as consistent an opposition to the veto as Pierce and Johnson did.

It is interesting to note that the Presidential veto was used sparingly in America’s early years, a mere 31 times in fifty-six years before the first Congressional override occurred on March 3, 1845, countering President John Tyler’s veto of special legislation for revenue cutters and steamers. Not until Pierce and again with Andrew Johnson would Presidents experience the Congressional countermand of veto power, both men undergoing the dubious and unique distinction of seeing more vetoes thrown out than sustained. While Ford came close, no other President has witnessed as consistent an opposition to the veto as Pierce and Johnson did.

It is fascinating that Grant, so often dismissed as a weak President set the tone for a healthy use of the veto power. It would be Cleveland, whose 584 vetoes in two nonconsecutive terms, would raise the bar to the Presidential "no" on Congressional activity. Coolidge continued this strong tradition, issuing an average .75 vetoes every month in office in contrast to his last three predecessors, Harding (only six vetoes during twenty-eight months in office), Wilson (an average .5 vetoes a month for eight years, totaling forty-four), and Taft (39 in four years).

It is fascinating that Grant, so often dismissed as a weak President, set the tone for a healthy use of the veto power with 93 in eight years. It would be Cleveland, whose 584 vetoes in two nonconsecutive terms, that would raise the bar on the Presidential “no” to Congressional activity. Coolidge continued this strong tradition, issuing an average .75 vetoes every month in office in contrast to his last three predecessors, Harding (only six vetoes during twenty-eight months in office), Wilson (an average .45 vetoes a month for eight years, totaling forty-four), and Taft (39 in four years).

This chart, spanning a period more familiar to us, reveals a glimpse into the makeup of the Congress as well as the determination of the President. It is worthy of note that in years where different Parties control each branch, the overrides increase, whether out of legitimate constitutional checks or mere partisan opposition.

This chart, spanning a period more familiar to us, reveals the role that the makeup of the Congress has on the veto power just as it does the will of the President to wield it. It is worthy of note that in years where different Parties control each branch, the overrides increase, whether out of legitimate constitutional checks or mere partisan opposition. Since Nixon, overrides have become a regular part of every administration, whether warranted or not.

Here is a breakdown of the success rate behind Coolidge use of the veto. Only four were ever overridden by both Houses of Congress, A fifth one survived an attempted override and a sixth was upheld by the Supreme Court in the "Pocket Veto Case" (1929).

Here is a breakdown of the success rate behind Coolidge use of the veto. Only four were ever overridden by both Houses of Congress, A fifth one survived an attempted override and a sixth was upheld by the Supreme Court in the “Pocket Veto Case” (1929). An impressive 92% would stand over Congressional action. President Wilson would only ever see 88% success, with 12% of his vetoes overturned. Another 16% (eight vetoes) would come close to being undone by Congress between 1918-1921.

This chart not only illustrates the increase of President Coolidge's veto use as his term advanced, he had particular skill in the use of the pocket veto - holding bills of which he did not approve until Congress adjourned, thereby preventing them from becoming law by simply out-waiting the House and Senate. In this way, the Congress could take no corrective action against his veto and it would force, one or both chambers to rethink the bill and usually drop the matter altogether.

This chart not only illustrates the increase of President Coolidge’s veto use as his term advanced, he had particular skill in the use of the pocket veto – holding bills (less than ten days before the close of a Congressional session, as stipulated in the Constitution) of which he did not approve, until Congress adjourned, thereby preventing them from becoming law by simply “out-waiting” the House and Senate. In this way, the Congress could take no corrective action against his veto and it would force one or both chambers to rethink the bill and usually drop the matter altogether. May of 1928, however, was the high water mark of Congressional intransigence to Coolidge’s executive approach, when three of his vetoes were overridden in one day, May 24, 1928. Cal would have the last laugh, however, as he would brandish the pocket veto not once, three, or even ten but sixteen times while Congress, already adjourned and unable to respond, learned helplessly of it in the news. Those would form some of his last official acts in office before departing for home in Northampton on March 4, 1929.