Essays, Papers & Addresses

The 75th Anniversary of Mount Rushmore

August 10, 2002
by Jim Cooke

Jim Cooke will travel to South Dakota to participate in a reenactment of the 1927 dedication on August 17, 2002. This 75th Anniversary event is sponsored by the National park Service. Jim has been performing Calvin Coolidge: More Than Two Words since 1985.

In America, the post 9/11 world is a world of fears and apprehensions. Is Mount Rushmore in danger? Well, maybe. The possibility of a threat to America’s ‘Shrine of Democracy’ is considered real though no threats have been reported. But, whatever the reality — security was high in the Black Hills of South Dakota on Memorial Day and again on this 4th of July. Today, vigilant patrols continue.

However, 75 years ago, there was real danger that sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s dream would never be released from within the granite where he saw it. That might have been agreeable to those Native Americans who see Mount Rushmore as a place sacred to the ancestors but now desecrated by the images of four dead white men. Yet, the Indians of yesterday, it is said, saw the whole earth as equally sacred to their ancestors.

A speech delivered on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 10, 1927 by a man from Vermont – now, 30th President Calvin Coolidge, made possible the classic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, ‘North By Northwest.’ Perhaps it is even of ‘ironic’ interest that President Coolidge was the first US president to acknowledge that ‘Indian blood’ ran in his veins. Pundits, reporters and cartoonists of his day used this accidental fact of ancestry to explain his reticence and inability to engage in small talk. They depicted him in feathers and war paint with hatchet in hand chopping away at bloated federal budgets. It was in the Coolidge administration that Indians, Native Americans, Members of the First Nation, the original Americans, became at last ‘citizens’ of the United States. ‘Silent Cal’ was always proud of his connection to them although the fact had not given pleasure to the National Republican Committee three years earlier in his election year of 1924.

In 1927 President Coolidge spent three months in South Dakota. He was the first president to spend a summer west of the Mississippi, staying at the Game Lodge in Custer State Park and maintaining his Summer White House in Rapid City. The year of 1927 was a year of sensational events and headlines. Including Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, the devastating Mississippi floods, the Dempsey – Tunney fight with the notorious ‘long count,’ the ‘Peaches – Browning’ trial, ‘The Jazz Singer’ where Al Jolson said, ‘You ain’t heard nothing, yet!’ Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns and, whatever ‘It’ was, Clara Bow had it.

Coolidge’s address of dedication on Rushmore Mountain consists of just over 1,000 words. Beginning, ‘We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone that was laid by the hand of the Almighty. . .’ In 12 minutes, he encouraged the tremendous public generosity that jump-started the monumental project and the federal funding that saw Borglum’s vision through the Depression to an incomplete conclusion in 1941 when Pearl Harbor captured our national attention and salvaged our economy.

That August day 75 years ago was the last time a US president rode on horseback to deliver an address. These are the words that made Mount Rushmore a possible dream:

The people of South Dakota are taking the lead in the preparation of this memorial out of their meager resources, because the American spirit is strong among them. Their effort and courage entitles them to the sympathy and support of private beneficence and the national government.

I find no other instance where President Calvin Coolidge advocates federal expenditure on something not of absolute necessity. The dedication came eight days after his famous Rapid City press conference where he released his bombshell statement: ‘I do not choose to run for president in 1928.’

Contemporary news reports of the Rushmore dedication tend to emphasize Coolidge’s poetic language. He is one of our last presidents that we can know from his words since he was one of the last to write his own speeches. With precise economy, he skillfully links the histories and personalities of four of his famous predecessors. He devotes 71 words to the first figure,

It is but natural that such a design should begin with George Washington, for with him begins that which is truly characteristic of America. He represents our independence, our Constitution, our liberty. . .

Always divided about Thomas Jefferson, Coolidge requires 96 words to put him in his future place on the mountain. While elsewhere deploring some of his ideas, yet he found much to admire in the Virginian’s view of limited government.

Next to him will come Thomas Jefferson, whose wisdom insured that the Government which Washington had formed should be entrusted to the administration of the people. . .

He spends 77 words on his favorite president.

After our country had been established, enlarged from sea to sea, and was dedicated to popular government, the next great task was to demonstrate the permanency of our Union and to extend the principle of freedom to all inhabitants of our land. The master of this supreme accomplishment was Abraham Lincoln. Above all other national figures, he holds the love of his fellow countrymen. . .

Coolidge devotes 61 words to the man many Americans had expected to see return to the White House in 1921. But TR’s death at age 60 ended that dream and made way for President Harding and Vice President Calvin Coolidge who now said,

That the principles for which these three men stood might be still more firmly established destiny raised up Theodore Roosevelt. To political freedom he strove to add economic freedom.

What Coolidge did at the conclusion of his address endeared him more to the people of South Dakota than had his entire speech. In business suit and his Western boots, he walked to the edge of the stage and took a long drink from the common dipper in the bucket provided for the public thirst. Presidents weren’t supposed to do that but Coolidge did.

©2002 Jim Cooke