Reagan and Silent Cal — will union attacks help Wisconsin’s Governor onto GOP ticket?
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Decades later my Long Island parents decided to settle after their post-WWII marriage in Northampton, Massachusetts. By coincidence, the very town that launched Coolidge’s career. By the time of my arrival soon afterwards they had joined the church in which I would be baptized and grow up. The Edwards Congregational Church — the Coolidge family place of worship. As a child I would delight in sitting in the “Coolidge family pew” — which is still there, carefully preserved. The former President had died in 1933, shortly before the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, and his funeral was held in an earlier version of the church. Attended by the national notables of the day, from the sitting President Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s Secretary of Commerce, to the incoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, the funeral was the event of the decade in Northampton.
Sitting in the pew of a former President of the United States was a thrill perhaps only a child who loved reading history could understand. Then the Coolidge family tie took another turn when my Dad would go on to win election to Coolidge’s old seat both on the Northampton City Council and as chairman of the Republican City Committee, my mother performing the ritual of many young political wives in the town — calling on the widowed Grace Coolidge, paying respects to the former First Lady having become a must since her husband’s death over twenty years earlier. This strange tie continued years later when I would work for Ronald Reagan — the first president since, well, Coolidge himself who actually thought Coolidge was a great and deeply underestimated president.
So I confess to an early Coolidge bias. An admiration that flowered when I began to relate the wise quotes I once earnestly copied down in a notebook as a schoolboy (“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”) to just what Coolidge accomplished as president — and just why Ronald Reagan had such respect for the conservative predecessor known during his White House tenure as “Silent Cal.”
Coolidge’s ascent began with an earlier version of the fight Walker now faces.
Specifically, a 1919 strike by the Boston police — which received massive publicity as Coolidge, like Walker just elected to his first term as governor, suddenly found himself mediating between the striking police, an indecisive Mayor of Boston, and an angry Police Commissioner.
The police were intent on creating for themselves a collective bargaining right — a union. Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis was furious. Into this stepped the American Federation of Labor and its founder, Samuel Gompers — the labor ancestors of today’s AFL-CIO and its president Richard Trumka. Gompers promptly issued the would-be public employees union a charter, further angering Commissioner Curtis. This was in August of 1919 — and Curtis promptly said the police were insubordinate and he was prepared to suspend them — unless they dissolved the AFL charter by September 4. An indecisive Mayor of Boston persuaded Curtis to hold off until September 8, but the day arrived and the police refused. Curtis followed through. The very next day a full three-quarters of the Boston Police Department went out on strike.
At that exact moment, a heretofore quietly watching Governor Coolidge made his Walker-like stance. With the police on strike, there was an outbreak of violence. A small riot ensued. In response, the Mayor tried — belatedly — to exert authority by calling out the state National Guard stationed inside of Boston (the Governor controls the state National Guard — a fact Coolidge was quick to note). The Mayor tried to sack his own police commissioner.
Coolidge had had enough. His response was crisp, clear and principled.
Never blinking, the new governor called out the entire National Guard from all over Massachusetts and put them on the streets of Boston to restore order. Coolidge also checked with his attorney general — and then quickly put Curtis back in the police commissioner’s chair. Gompers, alarmed, sent Coolidge a September 13th telegram which read:
The question at issue is not one of law and order, but the assumption of an autocratic and unwarranted position by the commissioner of police, who is not responsible to the people of Boston but appointed by you. Whatever disorder has occurred is due to his [Curtis’s] order in which the right of the policemen had been denied, a right which has heretofore never been questioned.
Coolidge replied to Gompers with a prompt statement the very next day. A response which was printed not only in the local press but in newspapers around the country. Here it is, with the one line (in bold print) that would make Calvin Coolidge famous overnight:
Replying to your telegram, I have already refused to remove the police commissioner of Boston. I did not appoint him. He can assume no position which the courts would uphold except what the people have by the authority of their law vested in him. He speaks only with their voice. The right of the police of Boston to affiliate has always been questioned, never granted, (and) is now prohibited. The suggestion of President Wilson to Washington does not apply to Boston. [Note: Woodrow Wilson had suggested to the District of Columbia government — then controlled by the federal government — that while he supported the idea policemen should not organize, he also did not think they should be fired for trying. The D.C. police did not strike.] There the police remained on duty. Here the Policemen’s Union left their duty, an action which President Wilson described as a crime against civilization. Your assertion that the commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity; the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time.
Wrote Ronald Reagan, citing this famous Coolidge quote in discussing his own firing of the striking air traffic controllers 62 years later:
Governments are different from private industry. I agreed with Calvin Coolidge.
Thus spoke Coolidge’s presidential admirer — himself once a union president. Coolidge, mugged by liberal historians after the Great Depression, has seen his reputation rise since Reagan the ex-New Dealer personally began citing him as a great president and putting that portrait in the Cabinet Room. Amity Shlaes, the bestselling author of The Forgotten Man, is at work on a forthcoming, eagerly awaited Coolidge biography. But other than potentially launching Scott Walker into the political stratosphere as it did with Coolidge, what is it that so resonates with conservatives that poses a blinking-yellow caution light to those already running or considering running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?
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