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The Strike That Made A President
When Boston’s police walked out, a great city erupted in violence. By doggedly doing nothing, Governor Coolidge emerged as a national hero
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
There was one man in Boston, however, who long before the strike had envisioned Coolidge in the White House, and to enliven that vision he was willing to devote his time, his energies, and his considerable fortune. Frank W. Stearns, the friendly, fussy little merchant who had inherited the very proper Bostonian department store of R. H. Stearns, first met Coolidge when the latter was merely president of the Massachusetts Senate. Stearns had at once been struck by qualities apparent to few others. Over the years he made himself laughable by announcing to all hearers that Coolidge was a second Abraham Lincoln who would end up as President of the United States. The editor of the Herald finally accused Stearns of trying to create a character out of Coolidge the way Dickens had of Martin Chuzzlewit. Stearns was impervious to witticisms. To him Calvin Coolidge was the greatest man in public life in Massachusetts, perhaps in America.
Some months before the police strike Stearns had completed financial arrangements with Houghton Mifflin to publish a book of twenty or so speeches made by Coolidge as lieutenant governor, to be called Bay State Orations. They were at best pithy platitudes, for if Coolidge had no great originality of mind, his style was at least brief and to the point. A Houghton Mifflin editor cleverly conceived of taking a phrase from a speech to give the book the arresting title of Have Faith in Massachusetts. It appeared, like a reinforcement, shortly after the police strike. Several thousand copies were sold, and Stearns gave away over 65,000 more. With the June Republican National Convention in mind, he saw to it that an autographed copy went to every G.O.P. delegate and alternate in the country.
If the Republican presidential nomination of 1920 had been awarded by popular vote it would have gone to General Leonard Wood, by far the outstanding candidate. But it was obvious before the Chicago convention that Wood, although he controlled the largest single bloc of delegates, would obtain no early majority. His chief opponent was Frank Lowden, another able man, with a distinguished record in Congress and as Governor of Illinois. The politicians-behind-the-scenes were convinced that neither Wood nor Lowden could win, that in the end they would cancel each other out.
Cautious Coolidge stayed away from Chicago and refused to announce his candidacy, even though most of the Massachusetts delegates were pledged to him. Just before the convention, Stearns opened and presided over a modest headquarters at Chicago’s Congress Hotel. He presented each arriving delegate with a small pamphlet of sixty pages containing excerpts from Coolidge’s speeches. Bound in imitation black leather, it was entitled Law and Order.
The convention opened in the barnlike, reverberating Chicago Coliseum on Tuesday, June 8. Four hundred and ninety-three votes were necessary to win the nomination, out of a total of 984. On the first ballot, taken on Friday, June 11, Wood received 287 1/2 votes, Lowden 211 1/2, and Coolidge, in seventh place, 34. By the fourth ballot Wood had reached 314 votes, with Lowden fixed at 289. The expected deadlock had arrived. To the surprise and anger of the delegates, and amid a rising chorus of boos, Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge adjourned the convention. That night, in the legendary “smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel, the party bosses tapped the shoulder of Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, and late the following afternoon, on the tenth ballot, he was nominated.
There was, of course, still the minor matter of the vice presidential candidate to consider. During the roll call for the tenth ballot, the senatorial hierarchs huddled in a small alcove concealed under the speakers’ stand and decided on Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin. Besides being a trusted senator, Lenroot would add a mildly liberal balance to Harding’s machine conservatism. It was arranged that Senator Medill McCormick of Illinois would make the nominating speech, to be seconded by H. L. Remmel, an old-line politician from Arkansas. The word was passed along to the delegates, some of whom were already drifting out of the darkening hall.
Senator McCormick duly mounted the platform and in a perfunctory two-minute speech nominated Lenroot. The florid old pro Remmel seconded the nomination. With contemptuous indifference Senator Lodge turned over the gavel to ex-Governor Frank Willis of Ohio, and he and McCormick left the platform. The vast Coliseum echoed with the loud tramp and shuffle of feet, the clatter of chairs as more and more of the delegates and onlookers in the galleries made their way toward the exits.
Scarcely anyone could catch what the speakers were saying, nor did it seem to matter. Suddenly on the far side of the hall a stocky, red-faced man climbed on a chair and bellowed for recognition. Affably, the substitute chairman recognized Wallace McCamant of Oregon, assuming that his was merely one more seconding voice for Lenroot.