Saturday, August 31, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty, The Passive Tense

The traits of Active and Passive for a President are pretty straightforward.  Actives are active in terms of pursuing goals, facing conflicts, getting things done.  Passives just kinda sit there: okay, I kid, but Passives react more to situations and sometimes not at all.

Which makes it odd that Passive-Negative Presidents ever get elected into office: Passives don't exactly pursue that kind of political career, and Negatives are uncertain if not despising of the powers of the office (they tend to be self-limiting in terms of what they do).  And yet, as James David Barber has noted in his work, we've had several: Washington, Eisenhower (more on him later), and today's special guest Calvin Coolidge.

In Washington and Eisenhower's cases, there are good reasons both of them ended up Presidents.  They were basically drafted to the job.  As Generals, they had experience of leadership that the nation sought them out to serve as leaders from the White House.  In Washington's case, he was the only man anyone would trust as President under the then-new Constitution: In Eisenhower's, he had led the nation's army on the great European battlefield of World War II with prudence and determination.

Why a P-N character would accept a nomination for the high office is due to their primary sense of Duty: if asked to serve, they would.  They may make good leaders especially in a military environment but only through consensus, adherence to procedure, and avoidance of internal conflicts (they act Withdrawn in public and sometimes even in private).  The next best thing about P-Ns is that they don't let all that power get to their egos.  Third best thing is that they tend to put decent men into key official positions (P-Ns are not seeking love, and tend to be immune to the suck-ups and con artists).  But the worst thing about P-Ns is that they tend not to think outside the box or show initiative, or plan ahead...

In Coolidge's case, it wasn't that he was drafted to be the President, it was that he got promoted instead.  With Harding's untimely demise, what had been a decent job placement for a Passive-Negative - the Vice-Presidency - got turned into the Top Job in the nation.  As befitting his character when Coolidge was woken at night and received word that Harding had died, Coolidge got dressed, called his father over (Coolidge was visiting home at the time) who served as a Public Notary, took the Oath of Office with his father, and then went back to bed.

As metaphors go, it was pretty apt.  Not so much that Coolidge slept through his entire administration, but that he went at his own slow pace.  Whereas Harding's administration was lively to say the least, Coolidge's was collected and quiet.  He could be a mean deadpan snarker when he had to be - Dorothy Parker reportedly tried to get him to say more than three words: Coolidge replied "You lose" - but if he didn't need to say anything he kept his mouth shut.

As President he believed in a hands-off approach to government: he let the private market take care of itself and restrained the federal public sector believing the states could do better.  He let foreign policy be managed by his Secretary of State Kellogg and economic domestic policy be managed by his Secretary of Commerce Hoover.  If he took anything seriously about executive authority he lent it to civil rights matters, pushing for anti-lynching laws and signing the Indian Citizenship Act which granted full citizenship rights to the native tribes.  He worked to defuse racial tensions, and during his tenure the Ku Klux Klan which had been rising in political power in the early 1920s had those gains reversed (albeit due to their own internal scandals and recklessness).

The most quoted statement Coolidge ever gave: "The chief business of the American people is business."

But that hands-off approach had its failings: the federal government's poor response to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and the failure to pass meaningful agricultural reform to help out poor farmers during the 1920s.  For someone who favored business and individual enterprise, Coolidge turned a blind eye to the farmers struggling to cope with falling market prices and growing debts.  The failing agribusiness industry would be one of the key contributors to the looming disaster awaiting the world in 1929...

As to what Barber noted about Coolidge in Presidential Character:

His philosophy helped him rationalize his leisurely pace.  His method was to concentrate on matters only the President had to decide, and to define that category as narrowly as possible.  Most everything could wait.  And Coolidge himself could wait, with utter unflappable calm, for longer than the last of his advisors.  He also managed to rationalize his independence of others; clearly his style in close interpersonal relations cut his off effectively from much of the Washington conversational froth - but also from any effective political bargaining with administrative or legislative or party leaders.  He was a loner who endured in order to serve, while the nation drifted... (p.172)

In terms of cleaning up the messes Harding left behind, Coolidge did a good job as President.  In terms of failing to keep an eye on the "business" of governance, Coolidge did a poor job keeping things safe for the poor bastard who had to follow him into office.

Next Up: That Poor Bastard.

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