That Silent Cal's political success was largely the product of GOP mythmaking was hardly a secret, but in the Roaring Twenties hardly anyone cared.
Calvin Coolidge was a child of fate if ever there was one. But he was more than that; he was a perfect product of his time and as such he exactly suited the American mood at the moment when that same kindly fate so generously removed President Harding from the scene just in time to save him from utter disaster and humiliation. A few weeks before Mr. Coolidge was elevated to the Presidency one of the ablest United States Senators--one who is always regular at election time--spoke privately of the Vice-President with complete pity. Mr. Harding would have to be renominated, but Mr. Coolidge--why, this curious and odd person, who had made no friends among the Senators and ate his lunch from a tin box in a corner of a committee room, would, of course, be retired to private life. Presto change, and Mr. Coolidge was in the White House and this very Senator was one of the first to render him obeisance, while an extraordinarily servile and romantic press seized upon the "curious and odd" person and painted of him a portrait that bore little or no resemblance to the actual Chief Executive.
But this was nothing new in Mr. Coolidge's career. When Oregon nominated him for the Vice-Presidency on the ticket with Mr. Harding at Chicago in 1920, the Massachusetts journalists present roared with laughter. It was a joke; it was Coolidge's luck again. For they knew that there was no truth in the story that Governor Calvin Coolidge had broken the Boston police strike with the fearless courage and intrepidity which the press attributed to him throughout the length and breadth of the land. They had read the report of the citizens' committee which cooperated with the authorities in handling the strike and had read over the signature, not of a radical, but of the late James J. Storrow, then the head of Lee Higginson and Company, that when the crisis came and the counsel of Governor Coolidge was sought, he was not to be found for forty-eight hours. The necessary action was taken without him; the honors, such as they were, belonged elsewhere. His own bombastic proclamation, telegraphed everywhere, came one day after the strike had been settled by Mayor Peters. But Mr. Coolidge never disavowed the unearned praise showered upon him. He was content to rise by the myth that made the Oregon delegates believe that they were honoring a great American.
Beyond that, nothing stands out in the early career of the man who was "sold" to the American people as the embodiment of the simple and rugged virtues of the simple and rugged Vermont from which he came. He chose Northampton, Massachusetts, for his permanent home, and he rose in due course like many another to the Governorship of that State because he was a Republican in a Republican town, in a Republican county, in a Republican State, and because he was absolutely loyal and obedient to the party machine, without a spark of initiative or independence. He did not distinguish himself in war time when he was Lieutenant Governor; before that he was an undistinguished legislator. But he belonged to the period in which, after you got to be a Republican president of the Massachusetts Senate, no power could stop your becoming Lieutenant Governor and Governor. The custom of years had decreed this and so it was in Mr. Coolidge's case.
Once in the Presidency Mr. Coolidge's characteristics as portrayed by the press tickled the public no end. The plain men of the farms and the small towns felt him to be one of themselves. The multitudes in the cities, reveling in an orgy of getting rich quick and spending as quickly, attributed their luck to Calvin Coolidge. The "masters of America"--as Woodrow Wilson called them--the great heads of the corporations which dominate our social, business, and political life, found in him just the complaisant national figurehead they so eagerly desired. He had been utterly silent in the face of the corruption of the Harding Cabinet, in which, by invitation, he sat; he never talked, as did Mr. Wilson, about our being "in the midst of a revolution" against the great capitalists. Nor did he denounce any of the big business men as "malefactors of great wealth," as did Theodore Roosevelt; and there was no chance under him of such shocking scandals as disgraced the Harding regime. So as the tide of prosperity rose higher and higher, it became "Coolidge prosperity," as if he had created it by some wave of a magic wand. And when he capped the climax, just before the expiration of his Presidency, by prostituting the White House as it has never been prostituted before by his statement of January 6, 1928, encouraging the maddest, wildest speculation in the world's history, the spokesmen of finance and big business called him blest.
Calvin Coolidge's shrewd sense that it was time to leave the White House saved him. Had he run again and been elected he would today have been as deflated and hated as Herbert Hoover himself. He made his choice and retired with the Coolidge myth still unexploded. He was still the wise, homely, simple, penurious citizen who went--for a time--from the White House to his $35-a-month apartment in Northampton. His thinly trickling, often unintentional, vein of humor continued to be exploited to the full. He became the "Sage of Northampton"; the noble Cincinnatus back at his plow. And only a few of the irreverent and the dissatisfied continued to point out, as they had done throughout his Administration, that not a single great constructive step was taken during his Administration; that, on the contrary, the Coolidge policies, so highly praised, were based solely on the crassest materialism and inexorably helped to drive the country into the limitless disaster in which it finds itself today. This disaster spells the end of many things. It is above all the final harvest of the policies of Calvin Coolidge and of those for whom he stood, whose desires he fulfilled, whose faithful servant he was.