The 1924 Presidential campaign arguably featured two men among a number of contestants who were the most like and the most unlike the current occupant of the office – they were Henry Ford and Calvin Coolidge. In the spring of 1923, Henry Ford led the field in a Collier’s Magazine presidential preference poll, including the incumbent president, Warren G. Harding, whose administration suffered from a plague of financial scandals. A “We want Henry” movement surfaced among a substantial part of the population, who believed that this narcissistic car builder and cracker barrel populist with anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic ideologies and a history of profound industrial success, was just the ticket to pull the nation out of the post Great War economic malaise that infected much of the country, particularly the rural, agricultural sector.
Although woefully inarticulate, Ford had his own newspaper and public relations team that churned out a constant stream of Ford news and ghost-written invective that reached national audiences through his own news bureau and his Ford dealership distribution chains. Standing in Ford’s way was fate and a politically crafty, but introverted Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal,” who had a dry New England wit and a keen political intelligence. Coolidge was a firm believer that in politics less was more when it came to presidential communication.
In his private home, over his fireplace, he enshrined a poem that read,
A wise old owl sat on an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Why can’t we be like that old bird?
Providence intervened in the 1924 election with the unexpected death of President Harding in California in August of 1923, scrambling the political alignments of that year and elevating Calvin Coolidge to the presidency. Coolidge moved quickly, quietly and effectively to consolidate a political base. He dodged any taint of the transgressions of the prior administration, largely refusing to discuss them. He pursued a policy of pro-business, “small c” conservativism buoyed by a rising economy. He carefully burnished an image of quiet competence.
In December 1923, he met with Henry Ford and offered to support his bid to acquire the federally funded Muscle Shoals hydroelectric and nitrate plants on the Tennessee River, in exchange for Ford’s support for Coolidge’s election bid in 1924. Many in the government considered the Muscle Shoals project developed at great expense by the Wilson administration during the Great War to be a white elephant. Ford, who was offering pennies on the dollar for the project hoped to turn the facilities into plants for the production of fertilizer rather than munitions and into a large industrial complex, which would greatly expand his power and economic reach.
Ford, who agreed to support Coolidge in 1924 did not count on the opposition of Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska, who almost single-handedly quashed the deal in the Senate. After Ford called off his political troops, Coolidge went on to victory in the 1924 splitting his opposition between the Democratic Party forces of John W. Davis and the Progressive Party adherents of Robert Lafollette. There was a wonderful, quiet respite in Presidential silence during the 1924 to 1928 term. Ironically, Coolidge became the first President of the United States to give an address on the new medium of radio.
-Gregory R. Piche’, author of the Four Trials of Henry Ford. See www.gregoryrpiche.com