In 1920, the office of Vice President was considered a geopolitical accommodation, thus inconsequential.
Calvin Coolidge, Vice Presidential Candidate
Few vice presidential resumes were more inconsequential than that of Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). Born in Vermont, he graduated Amherst College and remained in Massachusetts. As our last President to receive a legal education by “reading” law (apprenticeship), he had embarked on a mediocre career as an attorney. To supplement his modest income, he was active in local politics, becoming a state legislator as well as Mayor of Northampton, where he and his wife Grace made their home.
Physically, Coolidge was as unimpressive as his resume. Average in height and build, with thinning reddish hair and a bland, pasty face, he blended into the wallpaper. Personally, he was just as forgettable. He was the antithesis of a spellbinder. Taciturn to the point of mute, it was nearly impossible to get more than a half-dozen words out of him.
But his constituency liked him well enough and re-elected him regularly. Then they elected him to higher office: Lt. Governor, and finally Governor of Massachusetts. It is said that he was interested in serving as governor because he believed it would help his law practice.
Governor Coolidge Becomes Famous
After World War I, the booming US wartime economy took a huge hit. Returning doughboys we’re finding it hard to get jobs. Governor Coolidge was also faced with a growing crisis in Boston. The police department went on strike for higher wages.
Coolidge-the-lawyer, determined that the situation was a “Boston” problem, not a “Massachusetts” problem, and time and again declined to become involved. Coolidge-the-man usually chose to avoid problems rather than resolve them.
But the Boston police strike refused to go away. Finally Coolidge-the-governor defended Boston’s decision not to rehire the strikers, ordered in the National Guard, and told the head of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
That one electrifying sentence catapulted a never-heard-of governor from unimportant Western Massachusetts (i.e. not the Harvard set) into the headlines – and all eyes were on him for higher office. He was nominated as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 1920.
It is said that when he told his wife of the nomination, she was astonished and asked, “But you’re not going to accept, are you? He replied, “I think I have to.”
VP Coolidge, The Best Job
By the 1920s, the office of Vice President had evolved into mostly ceremonial tasks: ground-breaking, cornerstone-laying, funeral-going, and similar easy duties. And, of course, dining out. Since tradition prohibited the President from accepting personal dinner invitations, the Vice President became an official guest-of-honor. The Coolidges were invited out four and five nights a week. “Gotta eat somewhere,” he remarked. The thrifty V-POTUS also knew it was good for his food budget, since did not need to reciprocate that often.
For somewhat unfathomable reasons, uber-sophisticated Washington adored the provincial New Englanders. Grace Coolidge was a warm, outgoing woman who slipped effortlessly into whatever company she was with. But it was the Vice President who won the hearts of D.C. with his excruciatingly dry wit and totally unexpected and deadpanned one-liners. Washingtonians found him hilarious. His quotes made the rounds immediately!
He was a mega-hit.
The one duty constitutionally assigned to the Vice President is presiding over the Senate. Coolidge had been involved in legislative activities for nearly twenty years. He knew how to preside. Besides, books of Parliamentary procedure and Senate regulations are nearby for handy reference.
It was another easy job. No heavy lifting.
But politics being politics, there was an inevitable altercation. The Senate discussions were becoming heated. And more and more strident.
The story goes (one of a few versions, by the way) that one of the argumentative senators had had enough, and in disgust told his opponent to “go to hell.” The incensed recipient of the decree turned to Senate President Coolidge for proper admonishment and adjudication. “Did you hear what he said to me?” the offended Senator barked. “He told me to go to hell! What are you going to do about it?”
VP Coolidge, as usual, was non-plussed by the outburst and replied that indeed he had heard. Then he thumbed laconically through a handy reference book.
“Hmm,” he twanged, “I checked the book, and he does have the right to tell you to go to hell.” Then he paused. “But,” he continued, “you don’t have to go.”
It is said that the senators favored the ruling.
Adler, Bill – Presidential Wit from Washington to Johnson – Trident Press, 1966
Coolidge, Calvin – The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge – University Press of the Pacific, 2004