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Silent Cal and Wonder Boy

By Pat Murphy Created: February 20, 2013 Last Updated: February 20, 2013
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Portrait of 30th United States President Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929), whose nickname was “Silent Cal.” He was succeeded by the more widely known, but unlucky, Herbert Hoover. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)

Portrait of 30th United States President Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929), whose nickname was “Silent Cal.” He was succeeded by the more widely known, but unlucky, Herbert Hoover. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)

The 30th American president, Calvin Coolidge, is often associated with the better-known Herbert Hoover. But although Hoover served in his cabinet and then succeeded him, the two were really chalk and cheese—Silent Cal and Wonder Boy.

Coolidge, who is the subject of a new biography by Amity Shlaes, wasn’t being complimentary when he bestowed the Wonder Boy sobriquet on Hoover. As he put it, “that man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”

With respect to the derivation of Coolidge’s own Silent Cal nickname, it came from his renowned taciturnity. A perhaps apocryphal dinner party incident captured the essence. When the woman sitting beside him confided her bet that she could get more than two words out of him, his response was pithy: “You lose.”

While his background was unremarkable—a flinty small-town New England lawyer with a pronounced aversion to debt and an interest in politics—Coolidge worked his way up to being elected governor of Massachusetts in 1918. The following year, the Boston police strike put him on the national map.

Responding to the ensuing chaos, he broke the strike, calling out the National Guard in the process. And when criticized for his actions by the famous labor leader Samuel Gompers, Coolidge didn’t mince words: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”

From there, he was elected vice-president on the 1920 Republican ticket headed by Warren G. Harding, and became president following Harding’s death in 1923. A year later he was easily elected in his own right, carrying 35 states and winning 54 percent of the vote in a lively three-way contest. He declined to run again in 1928.

Hoover’s background was quite different. A mining engineer by profession, he was very much a modern man of technology, expertise, efficiency, and scientific management. And for an American of his day, he had a broad international background, pursuing his mining career in places like Australia and China—where he learned to speak mandarin Chinese. By the age of 40, he was a self-made multimillionaire.

World War I provided a different challenge, allowing Hoover to extend his scope beyond the realm of business by becoming the chief organizer of humanitarian food relief for occupied Belgium. And as with pretty much everything he’d done before, he was extremely good at it.

Back in America and courted by both political parties, Hoover fell short in his bid for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. However, he did wind up as secretary of Commerce, and Coolidge kept him in place after succeeding Harding in 1923.

While his cabinet slot wasn’t prestigious, Hoover’s energy and organizational talents gravitated toward whatever situation presented itself, the disastrous Mississippi flood of 1927 being one such opportunity. Jumping in with both feet, he took personal command of the rescue and relief efforts, arranging for the transportation, feeding, and accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Then, with Coolidge out of contention, Hoover had an easy path to the 1928 Republican nomination. In the general election, his own reputation and the glow of the widespread Coolidge prosperity won him 40 states and 58 percent of the vote.

Although they are often bracketed together as laissez-faire economic conservatives, Coolidge and Hoover differed in key respects.

Coolidge truly was a minimalist when it came to the economic role of government. He believed in Adam Smith’s invisible hand: low spending, low taxes, balanced budgets, and as little debt as possible.

In contrast, Hoover wasn’t averse to giving Adam Smith some help. He believed that government and business should work closely together, as partners of a sort. Above all, he was a man of action, someone who liked to be personally at the center of things doing stuff.

And Hoover certainly didn’t sit on his hands when the Great Depression struck. He tried many things, including some which turned out to be counterproductive—like approving the Smoot-Hawley tariff which was designed to protect American jobs but sparked an international trade war.

Caught in the throes of the 20th century’s deepest economic slump, Hoover was overwhelmingly defeated in 1932. While Wonder Boy had many things going for him, fortuitous timing wasn’t one of them.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics. Copyright Troy Media (troymedia.com).

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