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'Silent Cal' Embraced the Radio

'Silent Cal' Embraced the Radio
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Calvin Coolidge is one of the most understudied Presidents in American history. He stepped in when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in San Francisco, and then ran for the presidency himself in 1924, winning after taking every non-Southern state except for Wisconsin (which was home to the upstart Progressive Party’s candidate, Robert LaFollette). President Coolidge was a conservative Republican from New England.

Silent Cal’s demeanor might also contribute to his lack of attention in American history textbooks. Nobody wants to write about a scandal-exempt presidency or a peace-time executive or a boom-and-bust-free economy. Historians, especially the left-wing historians who dominate the American academy today, would prefer to focus on big issues that paint their heroes and villains in a light that fits their worldview. Silent Cal does none of those things, yet he was an immensely popular president (and state governor, of Massachusetts from 1918-20). Coolidge’s conservatism has also been misunderstood or misrepresented in history textbooks. His opposition to much of the “progressive” legislation that landed on his desk (only to be promptly vetoed) had more to do with his conception of the American federal system than with small government ideology.

Indeed, as governor of Massachusetts Coolidge supported child labor legislation, worker representation on corporate boards, wage hikes, and government safety regulations, all policies that he vetoed as president. To Coolidge, this type of legislation was consistent with the nature of state and local governance, but not that of the federal government, which is, under the constitution, to be restricted to a few specific policies.

President Coolidge was not suspicious of technology or innovation, either. On Feb. 12, 1924, Coolidge gave the first radio speech in American history to be considered “political” in nature, a short speech announcing his intention to run a presidential election campaign. This followed a Dec. 6, 1923 speech given to Congress and foreshadowed a president who became quite at home with using the radio as a medium to communicate with the American people. On March 5, 1925, Coolidge’s second inauguration was the first in history to be broadcast over the radio.

Franklin Roosevelt gets more credit from historians for being the early 20th century’s most prodigious user of mass communication technologies (at least in the United States), but Silent Cal, in his own way, could give FDR and his fireside chats  a run for his money. If FDR perfected the art of mass communication through the medium of radio, then Coolidge - the man labeled “Silent Cal” by Washington socialites - popularized it.

The radio changed the way Americans lived and died, and its advent marked a monumental shift in not only American history but world history as well. Were historians to give Coolidge a fair shake, they would see, too, that his conservative, small government principles also changed the way Americans lived and died.

 

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