Calvin Coolidge, Tom Corbett, and Why Politics Isn’t Like Business

CoolidgeMy wife is awesome.  As proof, I submit to you the fact that she willingly parted with 35 bucks in order to give me The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge for Christmas.  I just finished it, and I recommend it.  In particular, as I reflect on the last year of Harrisburg politics, I’d like to recommend the following passage—from a man who was, by the way, a lawyer-turned-governor known for being particular with his words and for cutting budgets.  (Sound familiar?)  I’d submit to you that generally speaking, if you replace the words “President,” “Congress,” and “Washington” with “Governor,” “General Assembly,” and “Harrisburg,” you’ll end up with some darn good advice with applicability well beyond the 1920s:

In determining upon all his actions, however, the President has to remember that he is dealing with two different minds.  One is the mind of the country, largely intent upon its own personal affairs, and, while not greatly interested in the government, yet desirous of seeing it conducted in an orderly and dignified manner for the advancement of the public welfare.  Those who compose this mind wish to have the country prosperous and are opposed to unjust taxation and public extravagance.  At the same time they have a patriotic pride which moves them with so great a desire to see things well done that they are willing to pay for it.  They gladly contribute their money to place the United States in the lead.  In general, they represent the public opinion of the land.

But they are unorganized, formless, and inarticulate.  Against a compact and well drilled minority they do not appear to be very effective.  They are nevertheless the great power in our government.  I have constantly appealed to them and have seldom failed in enlisting their support.  They are the court of last resort and their decisions are final.

They are, however, the indirect rather than the direct power.  The immediate authority with which the President has to deal is vested in the political mind.  In order to get things done he has to work through that agency.  Some of our Presidents have appeared to lack comprehension of the political mind.  Although I have been associated with it for many years, I always found difficulty in understanding it.  It is a strange mixture of vanity and timidity, of an obsequious attitude at one time and a delusion of grandeur at another time, of the most selfish preferment combined with the most sacrificing patriotism.  The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled.  They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse.  With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial.  A few rare souls escape these influences and maintain a vision and a judgment that are unimpaired.  They are a great comfort to every President and a great service to their country.  But they are not sufficient in number so that the public business can be transacted like a private business.

It is because in their hours of timidity the Congress becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities that the President comes more and more to stand as the champion of the rights of the whole country.

President Coolidge was often accused of being taciturn (indeed, he’s known as “Silent Cal”) but in fact, he was one of the early masters of the then-new technology of the radio.  Why?  He says it above:  He knew it fell to him, as the executive, to rally the “unorganized, formless, and inarticulate” public in defense of their rights, lest the “compact and well drilled minority” be the only voice the “political mind” hears.  And the results speak for themselves:  He cut taxes three times, vetoed a farm subsidy bill, kept spending down, and retired a quarter of the national debt.

As the New Year dawns, I for one would like to raise a toast to President Coolidge’s mode of governance.  May we see more of it in Harrisburg and beyond.