On Boxing

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Dempsey and Firpo (1924) by George Bellows

The Twenties remains one of the most vibrant eras of peacetime innovation, cultural achievement, and the leadership to embody it all in iconic personalities which now seemed larger and more glorious than the country — or the decade itself — could contain. The Twenties beheld legendary figures bestriding the world as they would cross a stage, humble but confident, reverent but restless with an energy to accomplish greater things than had ever before existed. Young heroes seemed to develop in abundance on several fronts. A shared cultural bond was emerging in pursuits that defied sectional isolation and narrow outlook ushered in through radio, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane and the camera.

It was a decade of transitions, as almost all decades are, but it was more than that. It was a decade of youthful exuberance and matured experience too but that simplifies the time. Few decades are so replete with pursuits that captured the imagination and encouraged a soar to the stars in the same breath. Lindbergh inspired the conquest of the air, looking forward to a day when we would cross continents in mere hours. Ford accelerated the conquest of the road, presaging a day when seeing the world would be opened to us by the automobile. AT&T was connecting the globe together around the telephone conversation. “Red” Grange was packing in stadiums to watch the new-found thrills of college football. Harold Lloyd was unleashing a subtle revolution in comedy and film itself. Radio was furnishing a cultural language too, programs anyone could access and enjoy. Newscasting had Graham McNamee.

America in the 1920s turned to sports with an enthusiasm that arguably rivals any other era. It sought out these athletic pursuits with a zeal that seemed long-bottled, hungering to do the incredible not with weapons of war but through the prowess of peaceful competition. It pitted wits and athletic abilities against each other to discover the best, confirming that triumph belonged to the winner not merely the participant. Everyone had his loyal fans. It was no less spirited and had its own violent collisions but it gave place and esteem to the victors of the ball field and champions of court and ring. Baseball had its Ruth. Football its Rockne. Golf its Bobby Jones. Tennis its Bill Tilden.

When it came to boxing, it was Jack Dempsey. His successor and rival for the title, Gene Tunney, would likewise receive wide accolades, including a visit to the White House to meet President Coolidge. That would all come later. First, however, it was Jack Dempsey, who would hold the heavyweight title for seven years. Long before Rocky Marciano, it was Dempsey who would earn glory through some 75 fights, losing only 6 of them. Defeating Jess Willard in 1919 for the title, Dempsey would go on to successfully defend it five more times, most notably against French Georges Carpentier in 1921 and Argentine Luis Firpo in 1924.

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Jack Dempsey and manager “Doc” Kearns posing for photographers at the White House, 1924. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

In 1924, he would meet his third President, Calvin Coolidge. He had already met Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. Here is Dempsey’s honest account of that memorable meeting with Cal. It illustrates the maxim that the first impression rarely captures the whole picture:

“I saw a lot of pictures of Coolidge in the newspapers before I met him. He ought to sue every photographer in the United States. The first time I saw his picture, I thought: ‘There’s a man I wouldn’t trade horses with, for he’d trim me.’ I don’t mean he’d cheat me, but I’d get the worst of it. He looked, in the pictures, like a man who was sly and foxy and sour.

“He reminded me, in his pictures, of sitting around a stove in a grocery store in the country in the winter time, and swapping talk and chewing tobacco, and in comes the shrewdest, smartest farmer in the county, and everybody respects him, but you can’t like him much, for even when he smiles his face is too shrewd and foxy.

“Well, when I met the President it was a kind of shock, for he’s different. He’s kind of like his pictures, yet he’s not like them at all. That smile that looks so sour in the photographs has got something good and straight about it that seems to come from his eyes, if you know what I mean.

“After I saw him and talked with him, I wouldn’t have been afraid to take him on in a horse trade unless I had it up my sleeve to trim him, and then I’d been afraid of it. He’d be honest, but you couldn’t fool him, and when he’d get mean he’d awful mean. I guess maybe that’s a pretty good sort of man to have running the country.

“We didn’t really say much to each other. Kearns and I went to the White House, and the President’s secretary, Mr. Slemp, introduced us, and I guess I felt a little awkward, and Mr. Coolidge smiled — believe me, it’s a different smile than you expect from his pictures — and shook hands with me, and said:

‘Well, Mr. Dempsey, you’re a creditable champion, and you’re a more popular man than I am.’

“I said, ‘Well, sir, I don’t see how a man could be more popular than to be President of the United States.’

“Then we talked for a few minutes about boxing. Slemp told him I could knock out a man with a two-inch punch — that’s what they said when I went to a scientific laboratory and punched a machine that registered on a dial, but I doubt if it would be true in the ring — and Mr. Coolidge grinned and said, ‘Well, that’s two inches more of a punch that I’d like to get from you.’ And we talked a little more and shook hands and said goodbye.”

It is noteworthy that the 1920s claims so many heroes of culture. It was an era when winning honestly was given due praise, dishonesty due shame, and the development of culture over and above that of politics mattered much more to regular people. That healthy balance was just how Cal would have wanted it.

Coolidges Chicago 1924

On President Harding’s Legacy

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“It often has been remarked that when a particular crisis in human affairs has required a certain type of ability to meet it the right man has appeared. Whether this is because there are latent powers in all of us which give those who become charged with responsibility the ability to respond by rising above themselves, it is impossible to decide. Perhaps it is enough to know that when the world has a work to do some one appears who is able to do it.

“It seems as though President Harding was preeminently fitted to serve the country in the disturbed and distraught period following the war. He had experience and ability, courage and patience, combined with a generous toleration and cheerful optimism that inspired confidence. He had a natural gift of expression which he had developed into an art. He understood the people and the people understood him. In composing a situation, in pacifying men, he was a master.

“Those qualities which were so much needed in our country and in the world he brought to the presidential office. When he began his term our domestic situation was chaotic. Credit was over extended. Commodity prices had experienced a perpendicular decline. Unemployment was extensive. Agriculture was prostrate. The national debt was enormous. War taxes prevailed. Government expenses were heavy. All kinds of business were in distress.

“Our foreign relations were precarious. We had rejected the treaty of Versailles but we had not made peace. We were engaged in building the greatest navy in the world. The islands in the Pacific ocean were a source of friction. Europe looked on us with suspicion.

Harding Cabinet (2)

Photo credit: Fineart America

“To deal with these problems President Harding summoned the Congress and kept it in session for nearly two years. The credit stringency was relieved by reviving the War Finance Corporation. Our markets were protected by enacting emergency tariff law. Labor was protected by restricting immigration. A Budget Bureau was established and a system of rigid economy was adopted. To discharge our obligations to ex-service men the Veterans’ Bureau was organized. A new internal revenue law reduced taxes hundreds of millions of dollars annually. A permanent tariff bull gave protection to our markets in harmony with the new conditions of world trade. Surplus war materials and treasury assets were converted into cash to pay expenses and reduce debts. Several billions of short term governmental obligations were paid or refunded. The shipping business and the railroad administration were put in the way of liquidation.

“While these measures were being adopted for our domestic benefit settlements of even greater magnitude were being made in the foreign field. Peace treaties were negotiated with those with whom we had been at war. A long standing difference with Colombia was generously composed. Diplomatic relations were resumed with Mexico. A commission was appointed under authority of the Congress to negotiate a settlement of our foreign debts under which an agreement was speedily made with Great Britain.

“In spite of a universally genuine desire for peace the world was engaging in a competitive race in armaments which was a source of expense and suspicion. To relieve humanity from this increasing menace President Harding called the historic Washington conference on the limitation of armaments. A preliminary treaty was drafted for the present and future settlement of differences among the many international interests in the Pacific Ocean. The British and Japanese alliance was terminated. The five great maritime powers then entered into a solemn covenant limiting most of the different types of warships in respect to number, tonnage, and armaments. When that treaty was signed it marked an epoch in history.

“Such in barest outline are some of the policies adopted under the leadership of President Harding for the restoration of the United States and the pacification of the world. Under this benign influence trade revived and a better international understanding prevailed. He would be the last to claim all the credit for these accomplishments. He had the loyal and patriotic cooperation of public men within and without his own party. All he could do through governmental agencies was to proceed in harmony with sound economic laws which would strengthen and support the recuperative power of the people in working out their own business revival. He had the advantages, too, of the deeply interested and watchful care of a wife who was ever devoted to his welfare and shared with him his burdens. No record of his work would satisfy him which failed to recognize the helpful influence of Mrs. Harding who sleeps here by his side.

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The Harding Tombs inside the Memorial dedicated in 1931. Photo credit: Christopher Riley/Flickr

“Frequently he asserted that he desired his administration to be an era of good understanding. Conflicts between the government and business he believed should be removed. Differences between capital and labor he wished to see adjusted. There was no room in his broad sympathy for any taint of sectionalism. But chiefly he was determined to use his great office to the full extent of the powers to prevent future wars. He was for good understanding among nations. His vision was broad. His statesmanship was inclusive. It would be difficult to find any peace time period of little over two years when so much that was beneficial was accomplished as during his administration” — former President Calvin Coolidge, accepting the monument to President Harding at Marion, Ohio, June 16, 1931.

 

 

 

On Why Our Fiscal Discipline Cannot Be Postponed

First Annual Message 12-6-1923

President Coolidge addressing both houses of Congress, December 6, 1923.

“Our main problems are domestic problems. Financial stability is the first requisite of sound government. We cannot escape the effect of world conditions. We cannot avoid the inevitable results of the economic disorders which have reached all nations. But we shall diminish their harm to us in proportion as we continue to restore our government finances to a secure and endurable position. This we can and must do. Upon that firm foundation rests the only hope of progress and prosperity. From that source must come the relief for the people.

     “This is being accomplished by a drastic but orderly retrenchment, which is bringing our expenses within our means. The origin of this has been the determination of the American people, the main support has been the courage of those in authority, and the effective method has been the Budget System. The result has involved real sacrifice by department heads, but it has been made without flinching. This system is a law of the Congress. It represents your will. It mus be maintained, and ought to be strengthened by the example of your observance. Without a Budget System there can be no fixed responsibility and no constructive scientific economy…” — Calvin Coolidge, Annual Message to joint session of House and Senate, December 6, 1923.

Memorial Continental Hall, 17th and D Streets, NW [Washington, D.C.]

Memorial Continental Hall, Washington: Where the departments of the federal government once met annually as the Business Organization of the Government to report on the previous year’s budget and prepare for the year to come in accordance with the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, that law establishing “a single, consolidated statement of federal finances as a whole.”

“We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic either of an undeveloped people or of a decadent civilization. America is neither. It stands out strong and vigorous and mature. We must have an administration which is marked, not by the inexperience of youth, of the futility of age, but by the character and ability of maturity. We have had the self-control to put into effect the Budget System, to live under it and in accordance with it. It is an accomplishment in the art of self-government of the very highest importance. It means that the American Government is not a spend-thrift, and that it is not lacking in the force or disposition to organize and administer its finances in a scientific way. To maintain this condition puts us constantly on trial. It requires us to demonstrate whether we are weaklings, or whether we have strength of character. It is not too much to say that it is a measure of the power and integrity of the civilization which we represent. I have a firm faith in your ability to maintain this position, and in the will of the American people to support you in that determination. In that faith in you and them, I propose to persevere. I am for economy. After that I am for more economy. At this time and under present conditions, that is my conception of serving all the people…” — To the 7th regular Meeting of the Business Organization of Government, Memorial Continental Hall, June 30, 1924.

We cannot call ourselves mature, and continue to spend as we do through our national representatives. Our actions are not those of the strong and wise but unmistakable signs of the feeble and weak, dissolute and backward, alternating pathetically between the inexperience of youth and the futility of age. Our cowardice on spending has turned the art of self-government into Dorian Gray’s horrific portrait, as all the while we refuse to see the rot within and wish only to gaze upon that fair complexion we would that we could wear forever to cover the true cost of our deeds. We feel we can keep postponing our trial indefinitely and never face a final reckoning or ultimate accounting. We accelerate with the confidence that it will be someone else’s problem to pay the bill some day. Without the will of the American people, the courage of those sent to represent them, sincere recommitment to transparent Budgeting, and the unflinching sacrifice all of this requires of everyone, this confidence has a point and will only continue unchallenged and unchecked to the devastation of us all. On this path, we are the antithesis of civilization. Our carelessness will cost us everything we have, all those things upon which we rely now will wilt and die. They are already dying faster than we realize. No defense complex will save us then. Reelection chances, government pensions, committee seats, and fundraising goals will be the last of our worries at that hour. By seeking to live against borrowed time and to have against indebted means, we will find a reaping of what we have sown comes sooner than all our best-laid attempts to forestall it.

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Old Cal saw it coming and did something about it in his day. Moreover, he took action during an unmistakably robust economic boom when government revenues and GDP could have easily furnished an excuse to do nothing about deficits or the debt problem at all. Yet, as we blissfully sit back and continue kicking the can down the road, we mock him as a do-nothing. What total disaster, right around the corner, will history record in our liability column which could have been avoided had we done a fraction of what Coolidge did to rein in run-away spending and restore discipline? Perhaps we should look in the mirror first and when we have taken inventory of what reflects back at us, we might just begin to exert half the measure of his focused effort and courageous action.

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“The daily grind in Washington” by ‘Ding’ Darling, January 15, 1925. Reproduced courtesy of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society.