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From Coolidge to Dewey

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

Calvin Coolidge. By Claude M. Feuss. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $4.75. Journal as Ambassador to Great Britain. By Charles G. Dawes. New York: The Macmillan Company. $5.00. Attorney for the People. By Rupert Hughes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.75.

When someone writes the history of the Republican party since the World War, the career of Calvin Coolidge will certainly receive major attention. General Dawes, as an important secondary figure, will appear again and again in the story of two administrations. Thomas E. Dewey may well become a significant personality in the annals of the party. Certainly the careers and views of these three men provide a convenient thread for the history of the Republican party during the past twenty years. “Calvin Coolidge,” by Claude M. Feuss, is a serious and authoritative study of the former President. Charles G. Dawes’s “Journal as Ambassador to Great Britain” is a rather unimportant sidelight upon the foreign policy of the Hoover Administration. “Attorney for the People,” by Rupert Hughes, is undisguised campaign literature, of an inferior kind, published in connection with Dewey’s candidacy for the Republican nomination.

Claude M. Feuss is a careful scholar and a facile writer, but his admiration for his subject colors the whole narrative and leads to the conclusion that the definitive biography of Coolidge remains to be written. The author’s New England and Amherst background and his generally conservative views are apparent throughout. His longing for the return of the “good old days” and his bitterness at the New Deal, together with his sincere respect for the homely virtues of Coolidge, have resulted in a portrait that is slightly overdrawn. Nevertheless, if one brushes aside this veneer of sympathy, the total effect is a substantial and praiseworthy addition to our knowledge of a man and a period.

After serving his apprenticeship in local and state politics, where he had already shown himself to be a remarkable “vote-getter,” Calvin Coolidge rose to prominence as Governor of Massachusetts. It was through the Boston Police Strike of 1919 that he became a national figure. The author’s treatment of this famous episode is excellent. From the beginning Coolidge resolutely supported the strong stand which Police Commissioner Curtis had taken against the desire of some of the officers to form a local union and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. The chief blunder of the Governor was in believing that Curtis had command of the situation. The argument that Coolidge was motivated by political ends in allowing the disorder to occur is carefully examined and successfully destroyed. Coolidge emerged from the crisis as the advocate of authority and of orderly government at a time when there was growing concern at the rise of radicalism.

Almost at once he was mentioned as presidential timber. His name was placed before the convention in 1920, but Senator Lodge would not support Coolidge, and Harding was selected as a compromise candidate after a deadlock developed. However, in the nominations for the vice-presidency, the plans of the “bosses” were upset and the Oregon delegation led a stampede for Coolidge.

While he attended cabinet meetings at the invitation of Harding, Coolidge remained for the most part in the background. His puritanical character made him uneasy amid the frolics of the Harding regime. Then came the most famous illustration of the traditional “Coolidge luck.” Harding died in California on August 2, 1923. In surroundings properly dramatized to fit the character of the chief actor, Coolidge took the oath of office as President in that simple farmhouse in the Vermont hills. He was so un-excited by the whole procedure that he calmly returned to bed to finish his interrupted night’s rest.

The tenor of his administration was set by these simple beginnings. The days of the easy-going, good-natured Harding regime were finished. The Teapot Dome Scandal broke over his head but his own hands were clean. His complacent attitude at this time is shown by the following remark: “Of course I am going to make a large number of mistakes. I am unable to account for the reason for it, but those things do not worry me any more. . . . I am going to do what seems best for the country and get what satisfaction I can out of that. Most everything else will take care of itself.”

Throughout the next six years the dominant note was one of utter complacency. In the speech of acceptance after his nomination in 1924 he said, “We are likely to hear a great deal of discussion about liberal thought and progressive action. It is well for the country to have liberality in thought and progress in action, but its greatest asset is common sense.” His “do nothing” policy was announced in his inaugural address: “We are not without our problems, but our most important problem is not to secure new advantages but to maintain those which we already possess.” We search in vain among his speeches for any positive political philosophy or any real understanding of social and economic problems. We cannot agree with one of the more effusive statements of the author: “The Calvin Coolidge of these speeches is, in his dignity, in his vision, and in his gift for leadership, a man of noble character.”

When the country was rushing toward the speculative madness of 1928-29, the President made no attempt to check the evil. Instead he helped to encourage further inflation by that blundering statement of January 1928 to the effect that brokers’ loans were not too high. Apparently, with his usual complacency, he hoped that things would turn out all right in the end. Perhaps, as Feuss says, nobody could have checked the terrific speculation—but attempts might have been made.

Altogether one is left with the impression of a cold, dull man, lacking any real breadth of vision and any spark of leadership. He was content to leave things as he found them. Nevertheless, he gained every office he sought. He had an appeal to the ordinary folk as a simple, kindly man with none of the bombast or showiness of the typical office-seeker. He was a clever politician in his own right, his taciturnity was an asset more than a liability, and he had powerful friends in Frank Stearns and Dwight Morrow.

General Dawes served as Ambassador to Great Britain from 1929 to 1932. His account of his experiences adds little that is new to our knowledge of our relations with Great Britain in those years. He played an important part in the negotiations for the Naval Agreement of 1930 but he gives little information concerning what went on behind the scenes. However, we can appreciate the difficulties in the way of any plan to reduce the tonnage of the principal naval powers. The technical arguments of the naval experts, the influence of public opinion, and the Italian claims for parity with France prevented the conclusion of a Five Power pact. Dawes worked well with Ramsay MacDonald and apparently deserves considerable credit for the conclusion of the agreement among Great Britain, Japan, and the United States.

Dawes witnessed the formation of the National Government in 1931 and Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard. He had nothing but admiration for what he termed the statesmanship of MacDonald. When the Sino-Japanese dispute developed in the fall of 1931, Dawes was sent to Paris to consult with members of the League Council. His “Journal” provides additional evidence of the desire of the United States to cooperate with the League in arriving at a peaceful solution of the problem. He resigned as Ambassador in February 1932 to become President of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

“Attorney for the People” is a poorly organized and undigested account of Dewey’s well known activities as racketbuster in New York City. The aim is obviously that of building up the young prosecutor as a candidate for the Republican nomination. Dewey’s abilities as an investigator and as an administrator of his department, his meticulous attention to detail, and his moral and physical courage are all undeniable. But when the author tries to stretch the facts in order to prove that the District Attorney has a clear grasp of national problems, he completely fails of his purpose. Nevertheless the appeal of Dewey as a vote-getter is obvious. He has struck the popular fancy of a crime-conscious people. He has touched directly the lives of many people by freeing them from the menace of the racketeers. He made an excellent showing against Governor Lehman in 1938. Thomas E. Dewey may well be remembered for a long time, but this biography will soon be forgotten.


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