Relations between presidents and vice-presidents are not always felicitous.
That’s held for a long time—from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson through, at least, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
The case of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge falls somewhere between Damon and Pythias and those less salutary cases.
The Harding-Coolidge relationship, though warm, was never chummy. That’s hardly surprising. Their personalities were as disparate as any White House team. The glad-handing, boosteresque Midwesterner and the terse, ultra-reserved Vermonter were indeed personal polar opposites, though remarkably sympathetic ideologically.
Before receiving his unwanted June 1920 vice-presidential nomination Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge had met Ohio Senator Warren Harding at least twice, the first instance being in 1915 when Harding and Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth (Alice Roosevelt’s husband) visited Lowell, Massachusetts to endorse the Samuel W. McCall-Coolidge gubernatorial ticket. In May 1920 Harding along with Wisconsin Senator Irvine Lenroot travelled to Boston for a speaking engagement at the city’s pro-tariff Home Market Club. While there, Harding said that if he lived in Massachusetts he’d support Coolidge for president. He was probably being nice. Mr. Harding had a habit of being nice.
In late June 1920, following the Republican National Convention (at which delegates rejected Lenroot for Coolidge), Coolidge travelled to Washington to confer with Harding for the better part of a day, taking time to record a campaign phonograph record. Harding had recited a talk entitled “Americanism.” Coolidge recorded his “Law and Order” remarks of the previous January. On July 10 Grace and Calvin Coolidge visited the Hardings’ Marion, Ohio home. “They received us in the most gracious manner,” Coolidge recorded, “It was no secret to us why their friends had so much affection for them.” During that visit Harding (like Coolidge a former lieutenant governor) announced that Coolidge would become the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings.
Coolidge friend and supporter Frank Stearns found Harding’s acceptance address to be “Words, words, words,” and cautioned Coolidge (a mild reservationist in the mold of former Massachusetts United States Senator Murray Crane) to avoid any extreme irreconcilable position regarding Woodrow Wilson’s ill-fated League of Nations. Yet, Stearns realized that “You are in an uncomfortable position. I can realize that, as far as possible, I suppose it won’t do for you to contradict the statements of the candidate for President.”
At Northampton’s Smith College, Coolidge addressed a huge crowd, delivering his own acceptance address, a necessarily restrained address. “Not being the head of a ticket, of course, it was not my place to raise issues or create policies,” Coolidge would later note in his Autobiography, “but I had the privilege of discussing those already declared.”
Nonetheless, he lavished praise on his new running mate, terming Warren Harding: “a leader and . . .the united choice of a united party, a statesman of ability, seasoned by experience, a fitting representative of the common aspirations of his fellow citizens, wise enough to seek counsel, great enough to recognize merit, and in all things a stalwart American . . . a man who in no stranger to me, coming to be known to his Nation as he has been to his intimates, strong, vigourous, resolute, self-contained, always affable, but never unmindful of the dignity of his position, the choice of a united party, Warren Harding. He has about him something deep and good. He wears. His works abide.”
Harding kept his word and allowed Coolidge unprecedented access to cabinet meetings. Coolidge, as usual, kept his silence but learned much from the process. Some said Harding prepared to dump Coolidge from the ticket in 1924. He might have—and certainly he was counseled to do so—but, again, Warren Harding was a profoundly kind man and such a move seems simply beneath him.
The story is often spun that during Coolidge’s vice-presidency, he was offered an official Washington residence, but that First Lady Florence Harding fumed to Columbia University’s long-time President Nicholas Murray Butler, “Not a bit of it, not a bit of it. I am going to have that bill defeated. Do you think I am going to have those Coolidges living in a house like that? A hotel apartment is plenty good enough for them.”
And that was the end of that.
As it turned out, however, Mrs. Harding’s alleged involvement was but a mere fraction of the tale.
Until 1974, no vice president enjoyed an official residence. In January 1923, however, Mrs. Mary Foote Henderson, widow of Missouri’s United States Senator John Brooks Henderson, offered to donate her half-million dollar 2801 16th Street, NW mansion to the federal government for that purpose. Her proposed gift required an Act of Congress to take effect.ido
Mrs. Harding may (or may not) have opposed Mrs. Henderson’s bequest, but Calvin Coolidge certainly did. Already struggling on a $12,000 salary, and with only $10,000 in savings to fall back on, he saw no prospect of maintaining a half-million dollar mansion—and quickly announced his opposition. He would continue to take modest quarters in Room 328 of the city’s New Willard Hotel.
When Harding passed in August 1923, Coolidge would write: “The nation has lost a wise and enlightened statesman and the American people a true friend and counselor whose whole public life was inspired with the desire to promote the best interests of the United States and the welfare of all its citizens. His private life was marked by gentleness and brotherly sympathy, and by the charm of his personality he made friends of all who came in contact with him.”
The Coolidges repaid Warren Harding’s gentleness, allowing his widow to remain at the White House until she might relocate at her convenience. They remained at the New Willard until she departed.
Calvin Coolidge, in assuming the presidency, retained and even expanded the Harding policies, particularly in matters of economy and taxation.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery—and actions speaking louder than words—Coolidge’s regard for his the late Mr. Harding was among the most profound of all “accidental presidents” for their predecessor. The Harding-Coolidge presidency did not end in August 1923. It lived on in spirit and in deed until Coolidge himself departed the presidency.
David Pietrusza (www.davidpietrusza.com) is the author of three books on 20th Century presidential elections (1920, 1948, and 1960), as well as three volumes on President Calvin Coolidge (Silent Cal’s Almanack, Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography, and Calvin Coolidge on the Founders). He is working on a study of the 1932 elections and is a member of the Coolidge Foundation’s National Advisory Board.