HOW THAT the Boston police strike of 1919 is over, it is possible to arrive at a clear and detached judgment on Gov. Coolidge's role. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, according to the familiar misquotation of George Santayana. But those who repeat the past are sometimes condemned to remember it, particularly when the country has a president with Mr. Reagan's taste for history, his afinity for Calvin Coolidge and his inclination to find in the 1919 strike an example for handling this summer's strike by the air traffic controllers.
Boston's policemen in the summer of 1919 had grievances that, you'd have to agree, were justified. The pay was $1,000 a year -- about $5,800 in today's dollars -- and they had to buy their uniforms. Conditions in the station houses were poor. Men and to sleep two to a bed, and Gov. Coolidge had written to the mayor of Boston to support improvements. Some of the policemen began to join the American Federation of Labor, a thing that their commissioner had expressly forbidden them to do. Things got very tense. Gov. Coolidge left town for a long summer vacation.
When he returned in September, he found that the commissioner had suspended the disobedient policemen, the policemen's union had replied with a threat to strike, and the commissioner had collapsed. The city was at the drink of crisis. Gov. Coolidge left town for a long weekend.
One the following Monday, he appeared in his office "as crisp as a dill pickle and about as sour," as William Allen White described it in his biography, "A Puritan in Babylon." That book, incidentally, is one of the classics of American political history.
Gov. Coolidge addressed the state convention of the AFL that day, without mentioning the Boston police. The following day, the police took a strike vote. It carried, 1,134 to 2, and the strike began. That night, there was rioting and looting of stores. The next night it got worse. The governor feared that the mayor of Boston might attempt to work out a compromise to bring the police back to duty by reinstating the men who had been suspended. They Coolidge view was that the police had not struck; they had deserted. At that point, he sent in the state militia, asserted direct control of the city police, and said, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, and time, anywhere." He immediately became a national hero and, ultimately, president. His successor, Mr. Reagan, likes to remind the country that he is following established precedent.