On the Strength of “Weakness”

While there is much in Michael J. Gerhardt’s new book, “The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy,” with which this author disagrees, he ably shows that Coolidge was anything but a pushover or “weak” president. Devoting chapter twelve of his book to the thirtieth president, Gerhardt demonstrates that Coolidge had unique strength when it came to his constitutional role and the exercise of presidential powers. Coolidge, perhaps more than any of his immediate contemporaries in the office, understood both the limits and the authority vested in the Presidency. His display of leadership was unprecedented in a number of ways.

As the previous administration’s scandals went public, it was Coolidge who took the incredible step of ensuring honorable and qualified investigators (not party hacks) took the helm after which he never intervened in the process to determine the facts. The investigation was allowed to find the guilty and acquit suspicion of the innocent. As a result of both their thorough competence and Coolidge setting a tone of full cooperation from the beginning, public trust in the law was preserved.

In the use of the pardon and the veto, Coolidge distinguishes himself as anything but a timid President. Of his twenty-nine predecessors, and his immediate successor, he ranks second only to Wilson in the number of pardons granted during his time. Of his 1,545, his most noteworthy were made at the beginning of his administration, on behalf of several who had been imprisoned for their public criticism of Wilson’s involvement in the War. Even more extraordinary was the fact that he issued these pardons not only over his Attorney General’s opposition but also before request for release had been made. His fifty vetoes stand also set Coolidge apart from his contemporaries. Only Teddy Roosevelt would issue more of them in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Not until Teddy’s cousin would the record be broken. Standing in the company of Roosevelts, Coolidge can hardly be classified a passive President. Like Grover Cleveland before him, Coolidge would use the “pocket veto” with great effect as well. By allowing a bill to die after ten days unsigned during Congressional recess, Coolidge would leave a lasting impact on the potency of the veto. His firm dissent from McNary-Haugen — twice — ensured that the President’s role in preventing bad legislation remains intact.

Coolidge’s political courage is even lesser known but just as dominant in his protection of the constitutional power to appoint officers of the Executive Branch. The earliest tussles with Congress demonstrated Coolidge could retain his nerves, remain unmoved by “mob” demands for this or that resignation and eventually prevail despite intense political heat. His resolve was not merely stubbornness but rather an abiding sense of duty and integrity. He would not join the crowd in a political lynching, however badly they wanted it. He was fair even to those who proved unfit for responsibility. He would not give in to appearances nor would he condone wrongdoing. As pointed out by others, it actually takes more strength to refrain from acting until the right moment — especially in the heat of the moment — than it is to be seen doing something now to appease onlookers with appearances. It was Coolidge who exemplified the strength of character required for decisive action only when the fullness of time warranted it. Not before. His strength, considered “weakness” by many even today, is a necessary component of wise leadership. To discount this quality is to misunderstand and fail to appreciate what makes good leaders.

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