It’s another one of those mostly-unexplored crevices of history. 90 years ago this August, President Warren G. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel, while on a trip visiting western states. Harding’s death promoted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency. They were Republican presidents in one of the hottest stock market eras of all time, during the Roaring ’20s. Their policies probably helped lead the nation to the financial ruin after the dramatic stock market crash of 1929.
Perhaps its no wonder people would like to forget that fascinating time — but shouldn’t we really give Harding and Coolidge some diligent study? Consider: Harding and Coolidge would be the last ticket to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for anything; FDR’s reputation rests on his rollback of Harding-Coolidge-Hoover policies. But in 1920, FDR’s ticket ran on policies more similar to those policies than opposed to them. Odd how history turns sometimes.
Warren Gamaliel Harding won the election to succeed Woodrow Wilson, some said simply because he looked like a president. Harding was a little laid back for the times — considering McKinley was assassinated, his successor, the hyper-caffeinated Teddy Roosevelt would die young of a heart attack, obesity nearly took out Teddy’s successor, William H. Taft, and Wilson had suffered a stroke about half-way through his second term. It was an era when high blood pressure had no particular treatment, and the Type A men who presided over the nation could suffer from all the syndromes high blood pressure can cause. At the White House website [links added here]:
Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality….”
A Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding’s speeches “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Their very murkiness was effective, since Harding’s pronouncements remained unclear on the League of Nations, in contrast to the impassioned crusade of the Democratic candidates, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Thirty-one distinguished Republicans had signed a manifesto assuring voters that a vote for Harding was a vote for the League. But Harding interpreted his election as a mandate to stay out of the League of Nations.
Harding took office promising to be a business-friendly president, meaning he supported the big money guys. Laying out a lesson of history that too many today never learned, Harding led Washington to cut taxes on the upper income levels and bigger businesses, and set up the Roaring ’20s economy that would lead to the financial collapse of the U.S. in 1929, plunging the nation into the Great Depression. Off the job, he played poker at the White House with bootleg whiskey on the table. No Treasury “revenuer” would bust the President and his high-rolling friends.
In 1923, Harding’s luck started to run out. Stories of corruption in his administration began to circulate. The Miller Center describes what led to his unexpected death:
Death of the President
Shaken by the talk of corruption among the friends he had appointed to office, Warren and Florence Harding began a tour on June 20, 1923 of the West and Alaska. He hoped to get out and meet people, to shake hands and explain his policies. Although suffering from high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, he seemed to enjoy himself—especially in Alaska. On his return journey, he became ill with what was then attributed to a touch of ptomaine (food) poisoning. The presidential train rushed to San Francisco, where his condition worsened. On August 2, he most likely suffered a heart attack in the evening, while his wife was reading to him. He died quietly and instantaneously.
Word quickly spread that Mrs. Harding, the last person to be with him that evening, had poisoned him to prevent him from being brought up on charges of corruption that soon engulfed his administration. A sensationalist book published in 1930 detailed the allegations against her. Her refusal to allow an autopsy of the President only fed the rumors. Harding left the bulk of his estate, valued at $850,000, to his wife.
It was August, after all. Coolidge retreated from Washington to his home in Vermont. The Miller Center’s account is a good one:
On August 2, 1923, John Coolidge woke his vacationing son and daughter-in-law at the family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, to tell them of President Harding’s death from a heart attack. Coolidge knelt, prayed, and went downstairs. Although the old house had no phone, it was soon abuzz with reporters. At 2:24 a.m., with the newspaper men settled and a copy of the Constitution retrieved, the elder Coolidge, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office to his son by the light of a kerosene lamp. Soon after, Calvin Coolidge went back to bed as the 30th President of the United States.
Coolidge is the only president to have been sworn in by a close family member. The “Constitution retrieved” should be a point of study of presidential aides. After the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, federal Judge Sarah Hughes got a call to administer the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson before Johnson flew back to Washington. Hughes said she’d do it, but she needed a copy of the oath. Apparently not giving adequate thought, this spurred a furious search for a copy of the oath. After too long, a lawyer in the U.S. attorney’s office recalled the oath is in the Constitution, and a copy in a law book was taken to where Johnson and the presidential entourage awaited aboard Air Force 1 at Love Field.
You never know when you’re going to need to remember history, and know where to retrieve some bit of law.
Coolidge used a calm hand at the tiller during his presidency, continuing what he and others thought to be wise policies to encourage the growth of business. He’s always struck me as one of the better balanced men in the White House. Coolidge brought Scouting into the mansion, for his two sons, John, and Calvin, Jr. — he was devoted to his family, and to outdoor recreation (though usually in a coat and tie — the fashion of the time). John attended Amherst College during his father’s term.
He won his own term of office in 1924, but lost his younger son. Calvin, Jr., played his brother in tennis, but developed a blister on his foot from the match. The blister got infected, and the boy developed blood poisoning, which took his life on July 7, 1924. Although Coolidge, Sr., won the election that fall, after his son’s death he appeared anxious to get out of the White House. Using the “two-term” precedent as his excuse, and claiming the small part of Harding’s term as his first, Coolidge did not run for re-election in 1928.
Coolidge enjoyed wearing various hats, and did not blanch at posing in clothing created for him, which means we have a rich (though limited) catalog of photographs of Coolidge in strange attire. Campaign staffs for presidential candidates since at least 1960 have made a study of this, working hard to avoid such photos, failing with some consequences.
- Death of a President, San Francisco Style (blogs.kqed.org)
- After 90 years, President Warren Harding’s death still unsettling (constitutioncenter.org)
- The Presidency: Calvin Coolidge’s Life & Career (c-span.org)
- A Day With Silent Cal (fulltimegypsies.wordpress.com)
- Calvin Coolidge Gravesite (anerdandhiscamera.wordpress.com)
- Warren G. Harding – 29th US President (congressratings.com)
- Calvin Coolidge – 30th President of the US (congressratings.com)
- Speeches of Warren Harding, audio and transcripts, at the Library of Congress
- Speeches of Calvin Coolidge, audio and text, at the Library of Congress
- “Listen to Leonard Emmerglick’s 1987 presentation at the Miller Center on Presidential Disability and Presidential Succession.