by Gary Alexander
July 4, 2023
On holiday weekends, I like to scour the history books to find helpful lessons that apply to us today.
A century ago, on July 5th 1923, Warren G. Harding, our 29th President, set sail with his entourage of officials from Tacoma, Washington on the U.S. Navy transport U.S.S. Henderson, bound for Alaska.
That glorious evening, they sailed by my future home in the San Juan Islands, but they did not enjoy the clear air or glorious sunset. According to his Secretary of Commerce – later our 31st President, Herbert Hoover – Harding insisted on playing bridge or poker in a cigar-filled room deep in the bowels of the ship, the kind of life choices that eventually cut Harding’s life short. Returning to the U.S. from Canada on July 26, the President dined on crab while passing through our islands and complained of “severe pains in the abdomen.” He cancelled his scheduled speech in San Francisco, dying there on August 2.
It was early August 3 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, when Vice President Calvin Coolidge was awakened with the bad news by his father, a Justice of the Peace. who administered the oath of office to our 30th President – the only President born on our nation’s birthday – born July 4, 1872, there in Plymouth Notch.
I bring up this story of a peaceful transfer of power a century ago since in June I reviewed 32 films for the Anthem Film Festival at this year’s Freedom Fest – to be held July 12-15 in Memphis – and Coolidge is the subject of a one-hour documentary I particularly enjoyed, as the longest-serving judge on the festival’s film review panel. Specifically, I’d like to review highlights of the 65-minute “Coolidge: Rediscovering an American President” compared to his progressive opponents shown in a 42-minute film, “Trust Us.”
Taken together, these two films hint at what this decade resembles – an ideological battle for control of America in a replay of the Roaring 20s – a time following a major pandemic, market crash, immigrant scare, a controversial President, high inflation, racial tensions, climate change and similar disruptions.
Coolidge seemed like a godsend at the time, since Harding was subject to corruption and scandals, while Coolidge was squeaky clean in personal ethics and a principled libertarian. The film opens in Rapid City, South Dakota, in August 1927, when Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, offers to put the boring face of Coolidge in stone on the nearby mount next to Teddy Roosevelt. Not only does Coolidge forbid this narcissistic act, but he chooses that day to tell the press there, “I choose not to run in 1928.”
Contrary to those who chose not to run due to scandals, Coolidge was at the height of his popularity when he resigned, and he was young, only 56. In 1924, he had won all 36 Northern and Western states, losing only the 12 southern states – the Democrat’s Solid South. Also, contrary to rumor, Cal was not silent. He averaged two press conferences a week, 520 in five years, more than any President before or since. He just chose his words more judiciously. He also ran for and won more political offices before running for President than any other President. He was a dedicated local public servant at the micro-level first.
He was also a champion of women and minorities. When the Ku Klux Klan flourished widely and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in their hoods by the tens of thousands in the mid-1920s, he gave a speech at the all-black Howard University praising the Black contribution to America, advocating equal rights. He had read the full Declaration of Independence as a young boy and cited it in 1925 as applying to all, including blacks, with his trademark brevity, “If all men are created equal, that is final.” He also passed the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. For Coolidge, these were moral issues. So was lowering taxes.
Coolidge called taxes larceny: “American people should work less for the government and more for themselves.” He said that he didn’t “cut budgets to save money, but to save people.” He reduced the federal debt by one-third while cutting top tax rates in half – and the portion paid by the rich grew:
Graphs are for illustrative and discussion purposes only. Please read important disclosures at the end of this commentary.
Tax rates were cut by more than 50% while the share paid by the rich more than doubled, tax collections soared seven-fold, the national debt was cut by a third and prices remained stable. Anyone want that?
Compare Coolidge to the Progressives – Who Love Running Our Lives For Us
In the same summer that Coolidge decided not to run (1927), the movie TRUST US talks about FDR’s future Brain Trust going to Russia in a ship called “The Roosevelt” (ironic, but it was named for Teddy, not Frankin, Roosevelt), containing several proponents of Progressive politics who weren’t recognized at home. Stalin rolled out the Red carpet with his Potemkin villages of beautiful girls, champagne and praise – basically courting Western currency, diplomatic recognition and allies for his murderous regime. These American fanboys came back with some astounding views, which have become historically infamous:
“I’ve Seen the Future, and it Works.” – Lincoln Steffens
“Market capitalism is a relic of a backwards past. Bring a new deal.” – Stuart Chase
“America needs a more managed society” –Rexford Tugwell
“Stalin is the Greatest Living Statesman” – Walter Duranty
Taken together, these men are what Lenin called “useful idiots.” The first quote came from an early visit with Lenin. The second and third quotes are from the 1927 tour with Stalin by future “Brain Trust” whiz kids in FDR’s cabinet, and the fourth is from a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who denied the Ukrainian famine, which killed millions, but he wrote, in 1932: “There is No Starvation.”
When you look at the 1920s and 1930s, you wonder how anyone can think that “conditions are worse today than at any time in history.” Sometimes I marvel at the ignorance of most Americans of our own history – but then our President recently quoted the Declaration and attributed it to the Constitution.
If you think some of today’s widely-publicized problems are big now, read some history about those days:
Climate Change: The 1927 Great Mississippi Flood was the most destructive flood in American history, covering 27,000 square miles with up to 30 feet of water for several months. Then came the Dust Bowl in several waves in the 1930s, destroying millions of acres of farmland. Is anything worse happening today?
Global Warming: Fully half of all U.S. State heat records were set from 1925 to 1939, mostly in the Dust Bowl years, and they still stand, after 85+ years. Only six new state heat records have been set since 1996.
Race Relations: Immigration to America was virtually wide open from 1890 to 1915. From 1919 on, there was a backlash of suspicion and extradition of many immigrants, fueling a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, with 25,000 Klan members marching in their robes down Pennsylvania Avenue in DC in 1925.
Politics-1920s: Coolidge overwhelmed his two opponents in 1924, the wild-eyed “Progressive,” Robert LaFollette from Wisconsin and Democrat John Davis. Coolidge’s policies and honesty were so respected he won 56% of the popular vote and he won all 36 Northern and Western states in the electoral college.
Politics-1930s: When FDR came to power in 1933, his Brain Trust assured him Americans wanted to be led like sheep, so various New Deal policies told us all what price and size nearly all products should be, but a family of kosher butchers brought a case before the Supreme court. Washington bureaucrats told the butchers: “How dare you tell us what the price of a chicken should be? We’re agricultural economists.” But the Supreme Court backed the butchers on May 27, 1935 – a day the bureaucrats call Black Monday.
The question posed by the film “Trust Us” is: “Will we continue to cede power to these experts?” After a century of grand experiments, of theorizing and moralizing and failures, why not re-discover freedom?
P.S. Louis Navellier will be speaking at Freedom Fest this year. It runs July 12-15 in Memphis. If you wish to inquire about attendance, go to the Freedom Fest website for details.