Special Report

Is Scott Walker the Next Calvin Coolidge?

Reagan and Silent Cal -- will union attacks help Wisconsin's Governor onto GOP ticket?

By 3.1.11

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"There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time…"
-- Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge to AFL leader Samuel Gompers on the "right" of Boston police to strike, September 14, 1919

"…I can't afford to have a fire or crime committed where there's a gap in service. And it ultimately just boils down to public safety…. This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history."
-- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to NBC's Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, February 27, 2011

Is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker the next Calvin Coolidge?

Is America witnessing once again the rise of an unassuming, non-charismatic anonymous state governor -- who suddenly rockets onto a national ticket and eventually into the White House by popular demand? All because of an unflinching stand against government unions?

With Republicans and conservatives busy divining whether Sarah Palin can win, if Mitt Romney is or should be toast because of RomneyCare and who is the real RINO -- Huckabee or Daniels or Christie -- America's television screens are being dominated by two people. The first is your standard Middle Eastern despot of the moment -- Mubarak yesterday, Qaddafi today, somebody else tomorrow. The second is entirely unexpected. That would be the pleasant-looking, black-haired guy with the bald spot and the distinctly Wisconsin accent that reminds you of exactly why Greta Van Susteren talks the way she does and what it means to be a serious Green Bay fan.

This would be, of course, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. A man who was well known exactly nowhere in America outside of his home state only weeks ago -- and now gets more hourly attention in the national media than Brad Pitt received when he dumped Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie.

That attention is coming Walker's way, it is impossible not to note, precisely for the same reason as it gravitated to Coolidge: a highly public -- and distinctly popular -- fight over the rights of bullying public employee unions. Taxpayer-funded unions that have deliberately targeted working families and the American middle class -- communicating a series of messages designed to infuriate: Your money or your kids. Your money or your safety. Your money or a phony doctor's excuse.

In a country where history is thought to be an event that happened two hours ago on Twitter, the Coolidge episode is worth recalling in some detail -- not least because Coolidge's reputation has begun slowly ascending from the historical mists. A process that not so coincidentally began when no less than Ronald Reagan received gasps of incongruity from the liberal media for pointedly placing Coolidge's portrait in the Cabinet Room within days of Reagan's arrival in the White House.

So why, exactly, could Scott Walker be the new Calvin Coolidge? And why, as the GOP presidential campaign season opens with each candidate swearing they really, really love Reagan -- did Reagan himself love Coolidge?

It wasn't for reasons of charisma.

Unlike Reagan, whose movie and television stardom helped propel him into politics at the top -- winning the governorship of California -- Calvin Coolidge was one of the rare American presidents who scaled the political ladder rung-by-rung from the very bottom to the very top.

A Vermont native, after college in Amherst, Massachusetts, Coolidge settled in what became his adopted hometown of nearby Northampton, seven miles and across the Connecticut River from Amherst. There, like Lincoln, he "read" the law. No fancy law school for either man.

It was in Northampton that he met his wife Grace Goodhue, a darkly attractive teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf who would become the Jackie Kennedy of the 1920s. They became members of the Edwards Congregational Church (named for Jonathan Edwards -- colonial America's most famous preacher and also a Northamptonite) as Coolidge began his professional life as a small town lawyer. His political climb began shortly thereafter, as he became successively and patiently a member of the Republican City Committee, Republican City Committee Chairman, the clerk of courts, Ward 2 city councilman, city solicitor, state representative, mayor, state senator, president of the State Senate, lieutenant governor, governor, then vice president of the United States.

And on August 2, 1923, with the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, President of the United States.

A personal note. For reasons I confess I always find… well… odd… my family's life has intersected with Coolidge's repeatedly. This began when my great-grandparents, Vermonters, had a farm next to that of Colonel John Coolidge -- Calvin Coolidge's father. They were, as I was told as a child, close enough as friends to be invited to the funeral of President Coolidge's son Cal. Young Cal died tragically at sixteen after getting a blister on the White House tennis court and coming down with blood poisoning. As with Willie Lincoln's death during his father's presidency, the sudden death of the boy Cal broke his father's heart -- casting what would become a permanent pall of depression over Coolidge even as he was in the middle of what would be a triumphant landslide election to the presidency in his own right. Somewhere I have my grandmother on audiotape telling me that she took my father, then seven, to young Cal's Vermont funeral in 1924. She could, she said in her late 80s, still see the grief-stricken president's red hair glistening in the sunlight. As a memento from that fateful summer I have my father's hand-inscribed notarized membership in the "Home Town Coolidge Club" of Plymouth, Vermont, dated June 1, 1924 and hand signed as well by the group's president and secretary.

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?

What Governor Walker is displaying in vivid fashion is a Coolidgesque and Reaganesque understanding of what it means to be a principled if not instinctive conservative. He is demonstrating on every television and computer screen in the country and around the world the same kind of sentiment Reagan once exhibited early on in his first race for governor of California. Pressed by California's liberal media about his tough stance against protesting students at the University of California at Berkeley, which in turn attracted support from members of the extremist John Birch Society, Reagan politely replied that they agreed with him -- he was not seeking to agree with them.

This is a fine yet distinctive line that Reagan understood clearly. It is why -- not to pick here on my former Reagan White House boss Mitch Daniels, whom I like -- when now Governor Daniels of Indiana says:

We must be the vanguard of recovery, but we cannot do it alone. We have learned in Indiana, big change requires big majorities. We will need people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean. Who surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter. Who, if they'd ever heard of CPAC, would assume it was a cruise ship accessory.

It is why conservatives are horrified at RomneyCare, an apparent effort by Romney to do just what Reagan -- and Coolidge and now Walker -- refused to do: abandon principle to accommodate the loud voices in search of some sort of mystical "big majority."

It is why some blinked in astonishment as former governor Huckabee chose to take on Romney in the 2008 primaries by describing the successful entrepreneur as someone who reminds voters not of a co-worker but the boss who laid-off the co-worker, a decided slap Obama-style at employers. (Coolidge, proudly, was an unabashed believer in corporations as institutions whose very purpose was "to serve the people better." No business bashing from Cal.) And why only this past Sunday one shook one's head at Huckabee's remark to Fox News Sunday Host Chris Wallace in this exchange:

WALLACE: But you had another sales tax increase when you came in as governor.

HUCKABEE: That was a one-eighth for conservation, which meant that we were able to dedicate a significant portion of funds for the preservation of the natural state, which is the state's motto, natural preserves. It was supported by the voters. It was on the ballot. Did I support it? Yes. But you know what, so did the voters, and they voted for it.

Translation of his remarks to Wallace? Yeah, I increased the sales tax so I could grow the size of Arkansas big government but all those liberal voters love that stuff so, for the sake of a big majority, I went along. But hey -- it was only a one-eighth of a dollar raise in the size of big government. Give me a break.

Huckabee's response, like Daniels' remarks at CPAC, like Romney's health care experiment, shows precisely the same tendency that drove Ronald Reagan nuts -- and Calvin Coolidge before him. In search of votes, leadership is interpreted as agreeing with liberals and the big government philosophy. Which has brought us all to the village of "we-kicked-the-can-here-and-can't-seem-to-find-a-place-to-kick-it-again."

This is precisely why Republican presidents from Coolidge's immediate successor -- the progressive Republican Herbert Hoover -- to Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and the two Bushes are in the swamps of presidential rankings while Reagan was just rated as the greatest president in the latest Gallup poll. Not just the greatest Republican president. The greatest president -- period.

All of which goes straight to the heart of a very sensitive issue in the GOP nomination fight.

Is this election about winning -- and governing -- on principle? As Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan -- and now Scott Walker -- exemplify?

Or is this about winning -- and then governing as Obama-lite? Anything to win that "big majority." The hallmark of Republican RINOS from the get-go. All leaving behind a government grown bigger -- and their successors to take over the latest round of "kick-the-fiscal-can-down-the-road." This time with no place left to kick?

What resonated with Americans about Calvin Coolidge was that he meant what he said when it came to his conservative principles. He ran on them. He won on them. He governed on them. As did Ronald Reagan.

As does, self-evidently, Scott Walker.

Which is why, as with the Boston Police strike, the Wisconsin public employees chaos may end up with the biggest union backfire of them all:

Eventually making Scott Walker President of the United States.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.