by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we inch closer to the presidential election, tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings take us back over nine decades to an entirely different set of circumstances when the campaign of 1924 pitted Republican President Calvin Coolidge, who ascended to the highest office in the land because of the death the prior summer of President Warren Harding, and Democrat John W. Davis.
While Coolidge’s nomination was entirely expected, Davis emerged as a surprising compromise, when the Democratic National Convention experienced a stalemate as New York Governor Al Smith, who became the party’s candidate four years later, and William Gibbs McAdoo, a former Secretary of the Treasury, were essentially deadlocked with neither having enough votes to secure the nomination.
Davis, a native of West Virginia who was Solicitor General during the years when McAdoo was also in the Wilson Administration’s cabinet and who was Ambassador to Great Britain for three years after that before joining a New York law firm, was introduced as an alternative after over 100 ballots, a record, were cast and secured the unlikely nomination.
Meanwhile, Robert La Follette, a Wisconsin governor for five years and senator from that state for nearly twenty, was a populist Republican and a spellbinding orator who ran on the Progressive Party ticket, and, although Republicans thoroughly dominated the national political scene during the Twenties, his candidacy raised concerns among the G.O.P. about his siphoning votes from the incumbent Coolidge.
In Los Angeles, the Republicans were as dominating as the party was in most of the rest of the nation, and so it is probably not too surprising that it was not until 20 September that a formal party headquarters was opened in downtown Los Angeles. The artifact highlighted here is a postcard sent that proclaimed “Coolidge-Dawes and Victory!” and which announced the opening on the evening of the 20th.
The card added that “a splendid program of speaking and entertainment has been arranged” and that the recipient was “requested to be present and bring as many friends as possible with you.” It was signed by the county central committee chair Ralph Arnold, a prominent oil geologist and chair of that regional GOP committee from 1922-1928, and Charles C. Teague, a well-known citrus grower and founder of the Sunkist cooperative from Ventura County and who was the chair of the southern division of the Coolidge-Dawes League of Republican Clubs of California.
The object was mailed to Otto J. Zahn, a native of Oakland who came to Los Angeles as a boy with his father, German-born Johann being a physician of note in the Angel City. Zahn, who first garnered local attention for his raising and use of homing pigeons between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland, became a real estate figure and a Republican fixture. He was involved in city planning bodies, ran for the state Assembly and served on a humane animal commission. This card comes from a collection of political items from Zahn, some of which will be shared in future posts.
In its coverage of the headquarters opening, the Los Angeles Express noted that “campaign officials expect to entertain one of the largest crowds to gather for such an affair in recent years” with “band music, campaign oratory and all of the other useful political accessories” present. Among the speakers were ex-Senator Frank P. Flint (founder of the Flintridge community near Pasadena); attorney and Republican stalwart Joseph Scott; head deputy district attorney and future D.A. Buron Fitts; members of the House of Representatives Walter F. Lineberger and John D. Fredericks, the latter a former district attorney in Los Angeles County; and a few women, including Mrs. O.P. Clark, a member of the national G.O.P. committee and Florence Collins Porter, who was field director for women’s activities for the Coolidge-Dawes campaign.
Separately, Porter, H. Josephine Winn of the Republican Study Club and Dora A. Stearns, the chair of the Republican Women’s Precinct group, announced that there would be a women’s division for the South Bay communities of El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach formed that afternoon at the Hermosa Beach city hall.
The Los Angeles Tines, which had close ties to the party, reported that “work has been in progress during the last ten days getting the headquarters at 425 South Spring street ready for the opening.” An assembly hall was just finished and “in view of the great amount of interest in the campaign, headquarters officials declared that they have provided a number of rooms for overflow meetings” so anyone who showed up could hear, if not see, the speakers.
Moreover, the paper continued, “special supplies of Coolidge automobile stickers have been provided and will be distributed at the meeting” as would pamphlets promulgating the party platform. As for the formation of the women’s division, the Times observed that this was a response to a challenge from Long Beach Republican women so that “an intense drive will be made to get a greater percentage of voters to the polls on November 4 than ever before.” Belle McCord Roberts of the Long Beach Telegram and who spoke at the Los Angeles opening “offered a prize to the community which polls the largest percentage vote at the coming election.”
In reviewing the evening’s event, the Times began with a quote from vice-chair of the county central committee, William E. Evans, who asserted that “our Constitution and a continuation of our form of government are the issues in this campaign.” This echoed the national party’s campaign sentiments, as expressed by the vice-presidential nominee Charles Dawes, who attacked Democrats and La Follette for wanting to subvert the Constitution and threaten freedoms of Americans with their policy positions. It also reflected the strong conservatism that followed the First World War and the socialist and communist advances in parts of Europe that Republicans tried to link to the Democratic Party. In particular, La Follette was lambasted for allegedly supporting the ability for Congress to pass laws ruled unconstitutional by the federal Supreme Court.
Fredericks was especially blunt on this last point, stating that “the man that would undermine and destroy the Constitution of the United States is a traitor to that flag. For there is no country, no liberty, nothing left for us but our teeth and claws if the Constitution doesn’t stand.” He highlighted a 40% reduction in federal spending, from $5 to 3 billion, under the Republicans in the previous three years and observed that this allowed for tax reductions.
The representative then added that he’d just returned from Europe and noted bread lines in England, low wages in France and Germany and noted “you all know what Russia and Italy are,” referring to the Bolshevik control of the former and the recent rise of Mussolini and the Fascists in the latter. He claimed “you can go the whole world around and you will find misery and poverty in every country, every country except the country over which that flag flies.” He asked “are you, because you didn’t get something out of this administration, are you going to take a chance?”
After Fredericks added “the countries of Europe are suffering because they upset stable governments,” a couple of hecklers, including one purportedly a La Follette supporter, yellowed out “What about Teapot Dome?” referring to the ongoing scandal involving bribes to Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall from local oil titan Edward L. Doheny for no-bid leases to federal oil reserves. Frdericks shot back that the scandal was a matter for a federal grand jury and asserted that “there’s nobody in the government that had anything to do with Teapot Dome” and that the crimes of an individual did not reflect upon the party to which that person belonged.
Flint was concerned that La Follette could secure enough votes to diminish Coolidge’s chances and put the electoral college tally into a tie that would leave the House of Representatives deciding, as it did in 1876, who was president. Notably, the former senator referred to this possibility as electing Charles W. Bryan, who was Davis’ vice-presidential running mate, rather than Davis, as if the latter was merely a figurehead for the former. Yet, Flint also claimed that “it is conceded that the Democratic Party has no chance of success.” As for La Follette and his running mate, Montana Senator Burton Wheeler, Flint asked if they had done anything, while it was known what Coolidge had done in his year as chief executive.
Representative Lineberger tellingly spoke of Coolidge in terms of his “good citizenship” and remove from”reactionaries or ultra radicals” while saying that “Silent Cal” hewed a “straight, sane, American course.” This was typical of the casting of Coolidge, who was governor of Massachusetts for just two years before becoming vice-president, largely because of publicity for his handling of a police strike in Boston during the difficult year of 1919.
Declaring this was the most important election since the Civil War years and Lincoln, Lineberger took aim at the Progressive Party’s motto of “A New Declaration of Independence,” stating he liked the current one just fine and labeling La Follette and Wheeler as traitors for not behaving patriotically during the war. Indeed, a Times cartoon showed a giant “Spirit of 1776” figure ready to trample upon La Follette and his “Down with the Constitution and the Supreme Court” banner.
The Express published an editorial that was reprinted in the Pomona Bulletin and it observed that the state’s Republicans “are confident of carrying California for Coolidge and Dawes” but “do not delude themselves with thoughts of easy victory.” It asserted that the Golden State “may again be the pivotal state” and determine “whether the election of the next President shall result from the votes of the people or be thrown into Congress, to be fought over for months, with great injury to the country.”
It turned out that concerns about La Follette’s impact on Coolidge’s electoral fortunes were minuscule, just as Flint indicated when he said the Democrats had no chance to win. Coolidge won nearly 16 million votes, almost double that of Davis, who secured 8.3 million, whlie La Folette garneredjust below 5 million. The electoral college tally was 382 for the victor to 136 for Davis, a Southerner who swept the South and just 13 for La Follette, who only won his native Wisconsin.
In other words, it was a landslide for Silent Cal, though not as decisive as 1920 was for Harding and 1928 was for Herbert Hoover. The reality was that the decade was a thoroughly conservative one and nothing threatened the electoral supremacy of the G.O.P. until the dire days of the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt rode a massive blue wave to an even bigger landslide over Hoover than the incumbent had four years earlier.
As for Zahn, who lived near Doheny in the Tenth Ward, he was appointed in September 1925 to the Los Angeles City Council, along with Carl Jacobson, after two members of the body resigned because of accusations of bribery and corruption. The president of the council at the time was Boyle Workman, grand-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, the Homestead’s founders. Zahn, however, did not win the primary in the 1927 campaign. Seven years later, he failed to secure the Republican nomination for the Assembly, but he lived another three decades, dying in 1965 at the age of 94. This card is one of many interesting items in the Zahn collection and, during this election season, other posts will deal with the 1928 presidential campaign, so ;look for those in coming weeks.