2010 JFK Symposium

The Press Conferences of Calvin Coolidge: The Voice of the Man

Martha Joynt Kumar

            One of the most important resources we have to study our presidents is the press conferences they hold during their term in office.  Through them we learn their thinking on contemporary issues and events as well as their leadership styles and, for many, their backstage personalities.  Especially in the period from Woodrow Wilson through Harry Truman when presidents spoke to reporters in off-the-record sessions, presidents were often candid about their policies and let reporters know the process they were using to deal with situations.  President Coolidge developed a practice few other chief executives adhered to: he met frequently and regularly with reporters to explain his thoughts and policies.

Reporters covering President Coolidge were his constant companions in his Tuesday and Friday sessions at the White House or on the road with him on vacation.  He got to know them as they did him.  Their close contact became important to the variety of subjects he discussed with them ranging from his views on why presidents should hold press conferences to his personal responses to deaths of family members.  His press conferences are a jewel of a resource in decoding what President Coolidge thought as his presidency unfolded.  Far from being a silent man, President Coolidge appeared loquacious in his sessions with reporters.

            Of all of the seventeen presidents who have held press conferences from President Wilson to President Obama, President Calvin Coolidge held more of them for the amount of time he was in office than any of his predecessors or successors.   His 521 sessions in five and a half years was surpassed only by President Franklin Roosevelt who had twice the number of sessions but was in office for slightly over twelve years.  Comparative statistics of how many press conferences they held for the number of months they were in office demonstrate the total press sessions as well the number each chief executive had per month and per year.

 Presidential Press Conferences: 1913-2011

President [i]

Total

Months in Office

P. Confer. per month

P. Confer. per year

Wilson

3-4-13 to 3-4-21[ii]

 159

     96

  1.7

  19.9

Harding

3-4-21 to 8-2-23

No transcripts

     29

 

 

Coolidge

8-3-23 to 3-4-29

  521

     67

  7.8

   93.3

Hoover

3-4-29 to 3-4-33

  268

     48

  5.6

   67.0

Roosevelt [iii]

3-4-33 to 4-12-45

1,020

   145.5

  7.0

   84.1

Truman [iv]

4-12-45 to 1-20-53

   324

     94.5

  3.4

   41.1

Eisenhower [v]

1-20-53 to 1-20-61

   193

     96

  2.0

   24.1

Kennedy [vi]

1-20-61 to 11-22-63

     65

     34

  1.9

   22.9

Johnson

11-22-63 to 1-20-69

   135

     62

  2.2

   26.1

Nixon [vii]

1-20-69 to 8-9-74

     39

     66

  0.6

     7.1

Ford [viii]

8-9-74 to 1-20-77

     40

     30

  1.3

   16.0

Carter

1-20-77 to 1-20-81

     59

     48

  1.2

   14.8

Reagan

1-20-81 to 1-20-89

     46

     96

  0.5

     5.8

G. H. W. Bush [ix]

1-20-89 to 1-20-93

   143

     48

  3.0

   35.8

Clinton

1-20-93 to 1-20-01

   193

     96

  2.0

   24.1

G. W. Bush

1-20-01 to 1-20-09

   208

     96

  2.2 

   26.0

Obama

1-20-09 to 1-20-11

     46

     24      

  1.92

   23.0

 

Today a president gives his views in speeches with press conferences being a small part of the public activities he undertakes.   To take one year, 1925, the ratio of President Coolidge’s off-the-record press conferences v. speeches for President Coolidge was approximately 3.4 press conferences for every speech he gave. He had 28 public addresses in 1925 and 94 press conferences (Cornwell, 95 and news conference transcripts, Forbes Library).  Today, in addition to an enormous increase in presidential speeches, the balance between a president’s on-the-record press interchanges, not just press conferences, and speeches is the opposite of what it was at that time.  Taking President Obama’s 2010 speech numbers and all of the types of interchanges with reporters a president has today – press conferences, short question and answer session, and interviews – the president gave three speeches for every time he stopped to answer questions from reporters. President Obama’s numbers for 2010 were 481 addresses and remarks with 159 meetings with reporters to answer their questions.  Press conferences played a minor role in the exchanges with reporters President Obama had. His numbers were: 18 press conferences, 27 short question and answer sessions, and 114 interviews (updates of tables in Kumar, 2010, 316-317).[x]  In contrast to current presidential customs, President Coolidge used press conferences as his primary publicity strategy.

Why Hold Press Conferences: Presidential Duty. Regular press conferences were not an established presidential tradition when Calvin Coolidge came into office.  President Wilson began the tradition when he assumed the presidency but abandoned the sessions later when World War I was coming on. He had few of them in his second term.  President Warren Harding, the former publisher of the Marion Star, conducted the sessions with reporters even though it is difficult for us to know how regularly they were held because the transcriptions have not been found. 

With no long-established tradition for press conferences, why did President Coolidge hold them? Presidential duty is one answer but an additional one is the president had a sense of how reporters could advance his interests in their newspapers.  For Calvin Coolidge, these sessions were particularly important because he felt as an elected official he owed the public his view of events.  It was his duty as president to inform the public and his press conferences was a primary way to do so. In a September, 1926, discussion with reporters, President Coolidge spoke about his sessions with them:

I regard it as rather necessary to carrying out on our republican institution that the people should have a fairly accurate report of what the president is trying to do.  It is for that purpose, of course, that these intimate conferences are held (September 14 1926 press conference number 289).

The Presidential Press Relationship.  President Coolidge valued the work of reporters because he did not care to have an active role releasing statements on many issues.  His White House office did provide reporters with the transcripts of speeches and the press conferences he held as well as gave out some statements and press releases.  He was satisfied to have reporters assemble information on his presidency and tell his story. He was satisfied with a relationship where he had his off-the-record sessions with reporters and they wrote about his actions with the president kept at a distance from his words to them. He discussed the role of reporters in describing his thoughts and actions.

No, I don’t regard, as you men know, that it’s all necessary for the president to give out verbatim statements of everything that may be discussed here, but rather leave it to the different reporters because they are reporters and, a great many times, can do those things, on the whole, better than the president could, and leave it to them for the interpretation. That, of course, is where the art of reporting comes in. (September 14 1926 press conference number 289). 

President Coolidge then commends reporters for their coverage of his press conferences.  “I have found the interpretation of these press conferences given to the country, on the whole, accurate and I think helpful to the country and fairly satisfactory to me.  I think you’ve done rather better than I could have done if I had undertaken to sit down twice a week and dictate a statement to be given out” (September 14 1926 press conference number 289).

With a strong belief in the need to talk to the press, President Coolidge was consistent in holding press conferences at the White House and in bringing reporters along when he went on the road for official business and for vacation as well.  Vacation times were busy for reporters covering him as well as for the president.  In 1927, when Coolidge asked them how many words they had filed during the eighty-nine days they were with him, their answer demonstrated the degree to which the president had become a news story. They filed stories with two million, one hundred and fifty thousand words from Black Hills, South Dakota during their eighty-nine days there (Cornwell, 85).  That number represented an increase of 600,000 more words than during his seventh-three day 1926 vacation in White Pine Camp in the Adirondacks (Cornwell, 85).  It was through this constant contact with the president that reporters built a relationship of confidence and trust. 

President Coolidge spoke with reporters about a variety of subjects, including ones going beyond the issues raised by reporters in their questions submitted a day before the conference. The president loosened the then current practice of only responding to questions submitted the day before.  “The Harding rules allowed follow-up queries from the floor only when the President had raised a subject drawn for the written questions,” commented political scientist Elmer Cornwell who studied the Harding and Coolidge period in Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion (Cornwell, 86). Cornwell’s study of President Coolidge’s press conferences found that many of the questions reporters asked in Coolidge’s sessions were new subjects, not simply the written ones. In addition, “frequently the President would inject a comment or announcement on some matter that he had not been asked about (Cornwell, 86).”  Thus, the Coolidge conferences were not restrained in the ways of Warren Harding who preceded him and Herbert Hoover who followed him.

Public Policy Leadership. The most important way President Coolidge used press conferences was for public policy leadership. Coolidge’s press conference transcripts show a continuing pattern of the chief executive using the sessions to promote and discourage legislation being considered by Congress.  Cornwell studied the Coolidge press conferences held during the two sessions of the 68th Congress for their public leadership content (Cornwell, 81-84).  What Cornwell found was a president with strong views on policies then being discussed by Congress.  In the first session of the Congress, Coolidge had 47 meetings with the press. “At twenty-six of these, the President replied to a question about the doings of Congress in such a way as to evidence a desire to influence the legislative process.  These varied from flat statements of support of a bill and desire for action to indirect endorsements or a brief allusion to a previous favorable statement (Cornwell, 82).’  In the second session, the same was true with statements on legislation in 30 of the 54 press sessions.       

A particularly important policy issue was the tax plan supported by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.  Cornwell found that the tax issue was central to what Coolidge wanted to accomplish during that Congress.  In 18 of the 53 sessions President Coolidge held between December 1923 through June 1924, President Coolidge discussed tax reduction.  “On ten of these occasions he urged Congress to enact the legislation, in specific terms,” Cornwell observed (Cornwell, 82). He did so quite pointedly.  During this period Cornwell found the terms Coolidge used to advance tax reduction legislation included the following: ‘I am very anxious…that there be legislation relative to taxation,’ ‘it’s enactment at the earliest possible time,’ ‘I am in favor of the administration’s bill,’ or ‘You may dwell with such emphasis as you want on the necessity of getting the tax reduction.’ (Cornwell, 82). 

While taxation was a central issue for President Coolidge, so too was government spending. And he also talked about appropriations and the need to keep them under control. He told reporters: “I know of no better service that you can perform than to sound a bell of public warning about appropriations getting out of hand.” (Cornwell, 83)  Other kinds of issues caught his attention as well.  During his 1926 summer vacation, President Coolidge had visitors whose cause he championed.  He talked to reporters about backing their cause. “I was very much interested this morning to have a visit from a delegation of the National Woman’s Party. They are engaged in working for the Lucretia Mott amendment to the Federal Constitution providing a larger equality as I understand it between women and men than they think now exists.,” Coolidge told reporters.  “I was very glad to have them out here and hope the press will give it such publicity as it can.” (July 15 1927, press conference number 370).   He was just as enthusiastic serving as a booster for aviation.  His support for the aviation industry arises time and again from 1923 to 1929.  He was so enthusiastic about the progress of aviation that he suggested reporters take a presidential statement on the subject and use it as their own: “I have had mimeographed and given to the members of the press what I think is an accurate and detailed statement about some of the progress that we are making in aviation.  I would like to have you use it as your own material.  It [sic] think it is important and will be helpful to you in getting a clear idea of what the Government is doing, what progress it is making.” (May 21 1925, press conference number 167).

Setting the Record Straight.  As has been the case with most every president holding press conferences, President Coolidge used the sessions to deal with what he considered to be inaccurate stories. He had a sense that the news cycle was fast enough that when he believed a press account was inaccurate, he better get on it fast with a correction.  And he did so on many different occasions.  In one of them he spoke about a particular article in a Washington paper indicating he had picked his vice presidential candidate.

I made a statement about that on Tuesday in which I undertook to announce that I had no candidate and I adhere to that statement.  Any reports to the contrary to that statement are, as perhaps some of you men know, without foundation.  I usually keep my word for at least four days, and I can tell four days before the convention what I am going to do (June 18 1924, press conference number 76).

He used another press conference to knock down a Washington Evening Star story about a “mysterious” action he was about to take.  “Here is an interesting suggestion.  A news story in the Washington Star this afternoon hints at some drastic and mysterious action which the President proposes to take within the next few months,” Coolidge read to reporters in his conference (February 24 1924, press conference number 50).”  He continued with an observation that public expectations were built on the image of him created by the newsmen.  

I think you would be warranted in prophesying, if any of you want to prophesy, that I have at present no expectation of any drastic and mysterious action.  I think it is rather foreign to me to have drastic and mysterious action.  I suppose that is why this is news.  It is somewhat different from what I have been doing and perhaps from what you gentlemen have led the public to expect of me.

The Personal Side of Calvin Coolidge.  Personal tragedy struck the president when he was in office.  His seventeen-year old son Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning from a blister he developed playing tennis on the White House courts.  Yet the president managed to hold firm to his commitment to meet regularly with reporters. His son died on July 7th, and he had a press conference on July 18th in which he was talking about issues in Europe and also in California.  On July 22nd he had another, as he did on these other dates: July 25th, July 29th, August 1st, August 5th, 8th, 12th, 22nd, 29th (press conferences numbers 84-93). While many people believe the president did not carry on business as he had before young Calvin’s death, his press conference schedule would indicate otherwise.  In an oblique reference, on July 29 President Coolidge thanked reporters for their concern for him.  When reporters asked the president to assess his first year in office, he thanked them for their thoughtfulness. “I hope that I am not remiss, however, in feeling appreciation for those who have been solicitous for my welfare, and who have exhibited kindness toward me. This brings my attention (to) the great kindness that I had from those who perform the White House Press Association duties, and their associates. Perhaps this is a good time to express the appreciation that I feel for the great kindness you have always exhibited towards me,” (Coolidge, press conference number 87).

Several times, President Coolidge spoke of his other child, John, and the president’s wish that reporters leave him alone without reporting on his activities and whereabouts. Here, President Coolidge appeared much like any presidential parent trying to protect his child. In the summer of 1925, President Coolidge requested of them: “My son is going to the Citizen’s Military Training Camp the day after tomorrow.  It is a pretty hard thing, you know, to be the son of a President. It doesn’t give a boy very much chance to have the same kind of life that an ordinary boy ought to have.  So that I rather hope that the press will understand that he goes up there just as any other boy might go. … I hope the press will not give him any more attention than they will give the other boys.  I think it will probably be a favor to him if he can be left alone up there and be made to do the work that comes to the boys in the camp without any more comment that comes to other boys.” (August 28 1925, press conference number 186).

When his father died, Coolidge spoke warmly to reporters about his appreciation for their presence at the funeral and their notes of condolences.  He thanked reporters at his press conference: “I want to express my gratitude to those of you who went up to Plymouth with me.  It was a real satisfaction to have present those of you who have been so intimately associated with me here and it was a real help to me in bearing the burdens that I had to bear there” (March 23 1926, press conference number 241).  Coolidge went on to express his appreciation to reporters for the notes he received from them regarding his father. “It was a great satisfaction to see the appreciation in which he had come to be held by those of you that knew him and knew me, and especially the appreciation that was expressed in the messages of condolence that came to me” (March 23 1926, press conference number 241).  Coolidge was a person who could talk about his grief, and also was the first to thank people for their kindness. 

President Coolidge’s comments in his sessions with reporters were not all dour. He sometimes had a light touch when dealing with reporters.  In one session in September 1925, he spoke to a senator about a plan for reorganizing a department after which a report of their conversation surfaced in the press.    

I’ve received a line from Senator Edge this morning which said that he had been misquoted in the press.  That happens sometimes. [laughter] I hastened to assure him that I didn’t think it was a matter of grave consequence [laughter]. (September 22 1925, press conference number 193).

Through the years, President Coolidge’s relationship with reporters remained much the same with no dramatic highs and lows.  The president came into office with a sanguine view of reporters and made few changes in his attitude.  In December 1923, President Coolidge told reporters at the Gridiron Dinner that reporters treated him well. 

But the boys have been very kind and considerate to me, and where there has been any discrepancy, they have filled it in and glossed it over, and they have manufactured some. They have undertaken to endow me with some characteristics and traits that I didn’t altogether know I had.  But I have done the best I could to be perfectly fair with them, and in public, to live up to those traits. (Cornwell, 89). 

In his last press conference on March 1 1929, President Coolidge was just as warm in his words for those who covered him during his years in office.  He told them: “It has been a pleasure to have you come in twice a week and give me an opportunity to answer such queries as you wished to propound. I want to thank you again for your constant kindness and consideration. I hope you find the years to come as pleasant to you as I have the years that are gone by pleasant to me.” (March 1 1929, press conference 521). 

The relationship between President Coolidge and the press was a warm and cooperative one with a closeness few reporters experience with an incumbent president.  For his part, President Coolidge found his press coverage to be accurate and believed it worked to his benefit. Reporters knew where he stood on issues and understood his thinking on events and circumstances.  It was a relationship that worked well for both partners.

 

 Martha Joynt Kumar, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at Towson University. Her research interests focus on White House communications operations, presidential-press relations, and presidential transitions. She is the director of the White House Transition Project, and has authored several books, including Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communication Operation.



[i] Unless otherwise noted, the presidential press conference information comes from The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office). There are a series of volumes for Presidents Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. President George H. W. Bush had a press conference not contained in the Public Papers, which was held at Kennebunkport, ME on August 16th, 1991. The transcript is in files in the Bush Library. Information for President George W. Bush comes from The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents published by the National Archives and Records Administration. The press conference transcripts of President Calvin Coolidge are found at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. For the figures for President Wilson, see endnote 2.

[ii] Woodrow Wilson held only two press conferences in his second term thus his percentages may lead to a misimpression of how frequent they were for his first term: 3.3 per month and 39.0 per year. The press conference numbers differ in some respects from earlier lists. The Wilson figures include the press conferences found in Volume 50, “The Complete Press Conferences, 1913-1919,” edited by Robert C. Hildebrand  [Princeton: NJ, Princeton University Press, 1985] as part of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson as well as two other press conferences found in volume 39 and one each in volumes 40 and 61in the series, the particular volume edited by Arthur Link as well as one short one found in the Princeton University Library files of Charles Swem, White House stenographer during the Wilson years. The conferences on January 26th, June 22nd , July 13th 1914 and January 8th, 1917, and June 27th, 1919, were not in the Hildebrand volume and the short session on November 13th 1913 was found in the Charles Swem files. 

[iii] The Roosevelt numbers vary from the standard number of 998. That figure, which comes from the numbering done by the stenographers at the time. The last conference was numbered 998. That figure includes two press conferences from 1934 – numbers 138 and 139 – that did not take place. The stenographer left room for three conferences when he went on vacation, but only one was held. The error was not discovered until some time later and a decision was made to retain the numbering as it was. I have added 22 press conferences that were listed as A or B by the transcribers. By year, the ones I have added include the following. 1933, I include 14 A and 14 Band 49 A. The first two are sessions held in the President’s office at the behest of the President with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (Great Britain). While the two sessions do not both involve regular questions and answers as later develops, these are the first two sessions where the President brings reporters to talk to a foreign leader. They establish an enduring pattern calling for joint press conferences with foreign leaders to have a different format from his regular solo sessions with reporters. They are shorter in length and usually involve statements from one or both foreign leaders. Included in the 1933 count is a short session on September 6th [49 A], which probably took place shortly after the conclusion of an earlier one. In 1934, in addition to numbers 138 and 139 that did not take place, we can add in 129 A and 161 A, which are not really different from a regular press conference. Others falling into the general press conference categories include 193 B, 530 A, and 703 A. Additionally, I have added in sessions with business editors as they were counted into the 998 total in the latter years. From 1941 on, sessions 744, 858, 903, and 956 with business editors were counted as regular sessions as were ones with the American Society of Newspaper Editors [879] and the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association [933]. I have included such sessions in the early years of Roosevelt’s presidency when they were noted with an A or B. The session with such groups include the following ones counted in these numbers: 98 A, 193 A, 275 A, 360 A, 448 A, 449 A, 452 A, 452 B, 540 A, 557 A, 614 A, 636 A, and 652 A. . There are others include in the totals including 485 A where Press Secretary Steve Early was instructed by an ailing President Roosevelt to conduct the press conference in his place. It turned out to be an experiment not repeated. Also in the totals are 356 A with a Canadian official and 399 A held in Canada responding to reporters from that country. Introduction by Jonathan Daniels, Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D.  Roosevelt (New York, NY: DeCapo Press, 1972). 

[iv] The Truman press conferences include in their numbering a series of sessions much like those with President Roosevelt. While the text of several of sessions were not included in the Public Papers of the Presidents, the numbers remain. Thus, cumulative totals for President Truman include all of the sessions designated as press conferences. Those include numbers 11, 39, 61, 103 [American Society of Newspaper Editors], 13 [Association of Radio News Analysts], 36 [Editors and Publishers of Gannett Newspapers], 42, 81 [National Conference of Business Paper Editors], 51 [Negro Newspaper Publishers Association], 52 [editors of monthly magazines of Standard Railroad Labor Organizations], 73 [editors and executives of McGraw Hill Publishing Company]. Later in his presidency, sessions with these groups were included in the Public Papers as press conference, including numbers 121 and 177 with the National Conference of Business Paper Editors, 179 with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 124 with the National Conference of Editorial Writers, 202 with the Association of Radio Analysts. Also included in our totals though the text was not are 109, which was a joint press conference held in Canada with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and 82 where he corrected a previously made statement though did not take questions. That session was similar in its lack of questions to 114 where he simply thanked reporters for the courtesies they extended to him when his mother died. He did not take questions. In the Public Papers 114 is included with text as well as its number. 

[v] The press conference on December 16th 1953 was the first to allow direct quotation of the whole press conference. The press conference held on January 19th 1955 was the first to be televised although it was not broadcast live. 

[vi] August 30th 1963 President Kennedy had a “special news conference” in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. I have added it to the 64 press conferences designated with numbers.

[vii] President Nixon had two sessions titled “Unscheduled News Conference” on March 21st and July 20th  1970. I have added them to the 37 numbered press conferences.

[viii] October 21 1974 President Ford had a “News Conference of the President and President Echeverria of Mexico” in Tubac, Arizona. I have added it to the 39 press conferences designated with numbers.

[ix] President George H. W. Bush had a press conference not contained in the Public Papers, which was held at Kennebunkport, ME on August 16th, 1991. The transcript is in files in the Bush Library.

[x] All of President Coolidge’s interchanges with reporters were press conferences.  Interviews and short question and answer sessions were not forums a president used until recent years.

References

Calvin Coolidge.  1929. Transcripts. Press Conferences, 1923-1929. Northampton, MA, Forbes Library.

Cornwell, Elmer. 1965. Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion. Bloomington. Indiana University Press.

Kumar, Martha Joynt.  2010. Managing the President’s Message: White House Communications Operations. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press.