Essays, Papers & Addresses

Calvin, We Hardly Knew Ye: Keynote Address


by Richard Norton Smith

Richard Norton Smith has served as director of the presidential libraries of four presidents–Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and currently, Gerald R. Ford. He is also the author of acclaimed biographies of George Washington, Herbert hoover, Thomas Dewey and Colonel Robert McCormick. [Mr. smith was unable to attend the conference. His paper was read by Jim Cooke.]

It has been a year of surprises. The federal government is living within its means. The French have won the World Cup. Leonardo Di Caprio is a sex symbol. And now the Kennedy Library is hosting a reexamination of Calvin Coolidge and his legacy, an act of historical revisionism on a par with Boris Yeltsin bowing before the crypt of the last Romanov Czar. In fact, it’s not as great a stretch as you might think. For it happens that Calvin Coolidge’s sole election defeat came at the hands of John Kennedy–John J. Kennedy, a Northampton insurance man who nosed out his Republican opponent in a 1905 race for that city’s school committee.

As luck would have it, the election took place a few weeks after Coolidge and his bride returned to Northampton from a Montreal honeymoon. So when he heard a neighbor justify his vote for Kennedy on the grounds that committee members should have children of their own in the public schools, Coolidge had a terse rejoinder: “Might give me time,” he said.

Seventy-five years have passed since a kerosene lit farmhouse in a remote Vermont hamlet witnessed the most dramatic of inaugurals for the most prosaic of presidents. The purpose of this conference is to reconsider Coolidge, not canonize him, nor are we here to substitute one myth for another. Still our timing is hardly coincidental. In an age when much of public life is riddled by fakery–when candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content, Coolidge deserves reappraisal for his authenticity as much as his ideology.

In fact, people have been reassessing Calvin Coolidge at least since the 1890’s, when his Amherst classmates discovered to their astonishment that the sphinx-like Vermonter could entertain the campus with his delivery of the annual Grove Oration. Later, lawmakers in Boston would have second thoughts about the quick-witted Senate president who, when a colleague was told to go to Hell by an angry senator, calmly replied that he had looked up the law and found he didn’t have to. In the 1920’s, the imperious Senator Henry Cabot Lodge would live to regret his contemptuous dismissal of Coolidge’s presidential chances. According to Lodge, the self-proclaimed Scholar in Politics, no man who lived in a $28 a month Northampton duplex could expect to reside at the much grander address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Calvin Coolidge made a career out of being underestimated. In some ways he still is. Certainly the portrait that emerges from history textbooks bears scant resemblance to the most popular American political figure between the two Roosevelts; the unlikely radio star and diligent administrator who worked longer hours than Woodrow Wilson had before the war, entertained more White House guests than Theodore Roosevelt, and wrote personal letters to every farm editor in the country in a belated attempt to master the intricacies of agricultural policy. Unlike most Presidents, Coolidge had a healthy sense of proportion about himself and his seemingly exalted status. “It is a great advantage to a President,” he said, “and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” Press criticism rolled off his back. When an agitated Herbert Hoover protested an unfriendly column in the American Mercury, Coolidge replied nonchalantly, “You mean that one in the magazine with the green cover’? I started to read it, but it was against me. so I didn’t finish it.” Far from the tool of big business often portrayed, Coolidge refused to recognize the Soviet Union despite pleas from entrepreneurs who envisioned fortunes to be made in the Russian market. He was confident that the Marxist experiment was doomed. “Communism will fail,” he predicted., “because what it attempts is against human nature. No man will provide me with food and other necessities of life unless he is a gainer by it.” None of this impressed cafe society, which sneered at Coolidge and the culture that produced him. Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously observed that he looked as if weaned on a pickle. When Coolidge opened his mouth, it was claimed, a moth flew out. And who can forget Dorothy Parker’s wisecrack, as cruel as it was tasteless, on being informed of Coolidge’s death in 1933: “How could they tell?”‘

Calvin, We Hardly Knew Ye, in part because this dour, lonely, more than slightly mystical figure, whose disdain for sham set him apart even in his own time, wished us to know only so much. When William Allen White approached the president for an interview in 1925, Coolidge asked just exactly what the famed editor was seeking. White replied that he wanted a peck at the man behind the mask. “I don’t know if I can help you,” mused Coolidge. “Maybe there isn’t any.”

Seventy years later we are still peeking. In fact, nothing in his subsequent behavior was so revealing as Coolidge’s conduct on that sultry night in August 1923, when Warren Harding died in a San Francisco hotel room and the new president was sworn into office by his 78 year old father, a Vermont notary public. The lamplit inaugural, conducted in a 17 by 14 foot front parlor in a house bereft of electricity or indoor plumbing, struck a powerful chord among Americans who had no intention of practicing such rustic self-denial in their own lives, but took vicarious comfort from having a president who did. After all, the 1920’s were a time when men and women moved forward, even while looking back.

Coolidge was no exception. Before setting out for Washington the morning of August 3, he visited the hillside cemetery where five generations of his family lay buried. He paused before the grave of his mother, whose life had ended prematurely when Calvin was a boy of twelve, close by the spot where just a few hours earlier he had been inaugurated as America’s 30th president. Hers would be the first picture he placed on his White House desk. a likeness he would carry with him until the day of his own death. At the White House, Coolidge gave strict orders to Chief Usher Ike Hoover. “I want things as they used to be–before!” The resulting change spelled the difference between an Ohio speakeasy and a New England church supper. Equally revealing was the selection of former Virginia congressman Bascom Slemp as the president’s personal secretary. It was an adroit move, one that signaled Coolidge’s interest in securing a full term in his own right in 1924.

Among his first acts as president, this repressed but deeply emotional Vermonter wrote a letter to Jim Lucey, a Northampton shoemaker with whom he had forged a friendship which, multiplied by several million, begins to explain the curious appeal of Harding’s successor. “Dear Mr. Luce,” he began, “Not often do I see or write you, but I want you to know that, if it were not for you, I should not be here, and I want to tell you how much I love you. Do not work too much now and try to enjoy yourself in your well-earned leisure of years.” Thus Coolidge’s first days in office set the pattern for what would follow.

Shrewd and sentimental, calculating and dutiful, the new president shunned the gladhanding of his chosen profession. Unlike most Americans, who maintain a tolerant disregard for politicians, providing they don’t get above themselves, Coolidge was openly scornful of the political mind. Men in public life, he said, had been twice spoiled. “They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse. With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial.”

If Coolidge seemed enigmatic to his contemporaries, he appears more remote still to those of us reared on modern political theater, with its sound bites, focus groups and cool blue back drops. Thanks to pathbreaking scholarship from Bob Ferrell, Rik Booraem, Robert Sobel and Bob Gilbert, only now are we rediscovering the progressive Massachusetts lawmaker and governor who favored votes for women, raises for teachers, popular election of United States Senators, and workingman’s compensation. Only in the wake of Ronald Reagan, who reversed the centralization of power begun under his boyhood hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is it intellectually respectable to question State intervention and the inexorable growth of presidential power.

Exploding the myth of a do-nothing president who slept away his term, the recently opened papers of White House physician Joel Boone reveal just how great a toll the presidency claimed from Calvin Coolidge, who never recovered from the 1924 death of his namesake son. As Coolidge put it in his spare yet revealing autobiography, when young Calvin died, he took the glory and the power of the presidency with him. “The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding,” he added, in a Job-like cry of despair. “I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.” That he blamed himself for the loss of his son is more than sufficient explanation for the emotional depression that shadowed Coolidge’s presidency, and that foreshadowed the economic depression engulfing Americans after he left office.

Coolidge was already suffering symptoms of the heart disease that would end his life at the age of sixty. It had been said of the radiant Grace Coolidge, formerly a teacher at Northampton’s Clarke School for the Deaf, that having made the deaf to hear, she might yet coax the dumb to speak. In fact, her husband’s silences were at least partly intended to conserve his dwindling energy. Bernard Baruch expressed amazement that the private Coolidge, who averaged more press conferences per year than FDR, was so unlike his reputation as The Great Stone Face. “Well Baruch,” replied the president, “many times I say only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes more.”

There was another reason for his aloofness, and it says much about Coolidge’s strength of character, as well as the timidity that represented his greatest failing as president. All his life, Coolidge did battle with paralyzing shyness. As a boy in Plymouth, the sound of strangers being entertained in the kitchen by his parents had terrified him. For the adult Coolidge, an introvert in an extrovert’s profession, greeting their counterparts on the campaign trail required an act of will. In time he conquered his crippling reserve, “but every time I meet a stranger,” Coolidge acknowledged, “I’ve got to go through the old kitchen door back home, and it’s not easy.”

His reticence was matched by his canniness. Denied the usual political gifts, Coolidge created a public persona that held the world at bay while allowing him to indulge a humor sharp as Vermont cheddar. For politicians, laughter has multiple uses. It can express a genuine whimsy, with which Coolidge was generously endowed. It can also deflect those who come too near or probe too deeply. No less an authority than Will Rogers said of Coolidge that “he wasted more humor on folks than almost anybody.” Over the years, he developed his silent act into a running joke, a fierce, funny individuality cackling at pretense. Take the celebrated incident in which the president was approached by a gushing dowager who announced, “I’m from Boston.” “Yes.” said Coolidge. “And you’ll never get over it.”

Many Coolidge stories have the tang of self-parody. Urged to increase spending on military aviation Coolidge asked his Cabinet, “Why can’t we just buy one airplane and have all the pilots take turns?” To a senator who had just returned from Minnesota, Coolidge directed the prerequisite inquiries about the Midwestern weather. Asked for the local climate in return, the president said with his best deadpan expression. “Well. it’s been hot here. I was sitting here the other night with a lady who fainted. Don’t know whether it was the weather or the conversation.”

Having nurtured a reputation for thrift, in words and dollars, Coolidge made it work for him. Voters took an instant liking to this prim, dignified Yankee who hated wasted lives even more than wasted dollars. They rubbed their eyes over a public servant whose response to his election as governor of Massachusetts was to exchange his $1 a day hotel room for two rooms costing twice as much. There was no dignity, Coolidge liked to say, quite so great as living within your means. Unbought and unbossed. When presented a copy of the Intimate Papers of Colonel House the president pointedly told his would-be sponsor Frank Steams, a Boston merchant popularly known as Lord Lingerie, that “an unofficial advisor to a President of the United States is not a good thing.” “Did I ever try to advise you?” said Steams. “No,” replied Coolidge, “but I thought I had better tell you.”

To most Americans in the 1920’s, Coolidge was more than a character. He was character. Admirers savored his comment after being sworn in as Vice President: “I don’t feel half as important as I did on the day I graduated from Black River Academy.” They chuckled approvingly over his exchange with a senator who pointed at the White House one day and asked its current occupant who lived there. “Nobody,” said Coolidge, “They just come and go.” They quoted approvingly the story of young Calvin, who went to work in a Connecticut Valley tobacco field the morning his father succeeded Harding. Told by a youthful co-worker, “if my father was President, I wouldn’t be working in a tobacco field,” the presidential namesake shot back, “You would if your father were my father.”

The new president’s way of putting down political panhandlers was as distinctive as the broad “A” of his New England speech. When Congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick laid siege to the White House hoping to secure a federal judgeship for a prominent Chicagoan of Polish descent, she arranged for a group of Polish Americans to lobby the president in person. Ushered into the executive office, the group shuffled its feet uncomfortably as a stony-faced Coolidge stared at the floor. After what seemed like an eternity, the president at last broke his silence. “Mighty fine carpet there.” Relieved and expectant, the delegation smilingly nodded its concurrence. “New one,” said Coolidge. “Cost a lot of money.” At this the Poles smiled even more appreciatively. “She wore out the old one trying to get you a judge.” End of interview.

Thus did Coolidge, a master practical joker, enjoy a laugh on his less whimsical contemporaries. Historians, not noted for their whimsy, have by and large missed the joke. Then and since, few in the academy have taken Coolidge seriously as a political thinker or leader. To presidential scholars enamored of the bully pulpit-and of the occasional bully in the pulpit-the notion of Coolidge as a political moralist may be absurd. Think again. In his first message to Congress, in December, 1923, Coolidge proposed federal anti-lynching legislation, endorsed a minimum wage for female workers, and urged a constitutional amendment to prohibit child labor. Belying the later stereotype of a man who measured life with dollar signs, on the 150th anniversary of their independence, Coolidge told Americans that theirs was “an age of science and abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.”

Coolidge came by his values as the product of rural New England, where democracy and self-reliance were synonymous, and both were raised to the level of a civic religion. Of his neighbors in Plymouth Notch, said Coolidge, “They drew no class distinctions except toward those who assumed superior airs. Those they held in contempt.” Where the people themselves are the government, he maintained, no doubt influenced by the town meetings of his youth, it should be obvious that what the people cannot do for themselves their government cannot do for them.

Wrenched out of context, such sentiments may only reinforce the popular view of Coolidge as a throwback to the nineteenth century, and in a way he is. He is a throwback to the libertarianism of John Stuart Mill, who warned that “a State which dwarfs its men … even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no really great thing can be accomplished.” With his bedrock beliefs in local authority, personal responsibility and the separation of powers, he is a throwback to the Jeffersonian school of thought which holds the greatness of America derives, not from the power of its government, but from the freedom of its people.

Contrast Coolidge’s simple, unwavering faith in the common man with the postwar doubts expressed by such opinion leaders as Walter Lippmann. In his 1925 book The Phantom Public, Lippmann made it clear that democracy was in need of protection from the masses. Blaming the average man for his averageness, the former Socialist turned Bull Mooser turned Wilsonian idealist turned Meritocrat, argued that one must not expect too much from ordinary voters. “The problems that vex democracy seem to be unmanageable by democratic methods,” he declared. “The public must be put in its place so that it may exercise its powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”

And we come to a second reason why Coolidge remains so elusive. He always enjoyed greater popularity with Lippmann’s herd than with most historians, for whom the great offense of nineteenth century presidents is their refusal to behave like twentieth century presidents. That is to say, they don’t regard the White House as a temple, ringed with satellite dishes, in the modern cult of presidential personality. They look upon the Constitution as a limiting rather than an enabling document. To them the genius of American democracy lies in its organization from the bottom up-not dictation from the top down. They are less colorful and more cautious than those swashbuckling egoists who stand at Armageddon, battling for reforms and winning immortality through the words they speak as much as the administrative or legislative actions they take.

It is no accident that for much of this century, power and wealth alike have flowed from grassroots Americans to a federal government which expanded to meet the twin crises of economic depression and global war. Yet the life jacket of one generation can become the straightjacket of the next. Traditionally, so-called “strong presidents” have been lionized for their willingness to enlist the State in economic planning and the pursuit of long-delayed social justice. Coolidge, by contrast, has been seen as a dim caretaker who, if he didn’t personally cause the Great Depression, stands accused of criminal negligence in not preventing it.

There is a word for this. The word is “hindsight.” For Americans generally, their history is one of linear development, an escalator carrying each generation to levels that are smarter, fairer and more prosperous than its predecessors. Inevitably their nostalgia is tinged with condescension. To most historians, on the other hand, the American experience resembles a revolving door, a cyclical round of class conflict, marked by alternating periods of heroic aspiration and crass materialism. Thus the high and holy work of abolition is succeeded by the roguery and corruption of the Gilded Age. And the Twenties are seen-not as a fertile period of economic creativity, when wages rose faster than at any time in this century, educational spending quadrupled and technology enhanced life in most households-but as a stifling chapter in dull complacency and Babylonian excess.

Scholars caught in the revolving door find it easy to contrast the visionary leadership of a Roosevelt or Wilson with the crabbed management style of a Coolidge or Eisenhower. ‘This was not the prevailing view among Coolidge’s contemporaries, and for good reason. Imagine, if you can, a time when relatively few Americans looked to Washington to solve their problems, or to the man in the White House to feel their pain. Indeed, by August of 1923, millions of Americans resented Washington for meddling in their lives, squandering their wartime sacrifice and saddling them with a postwar government too large and costly for their liking.

If you were an adult American in 1923 you would, in the span of a single tumultuous generation, have mourned the assassination of a popular president and watched as his youthful and charismatic successor reinvented the office, before splitting the nation’s majority party in pique over the performance of his handpicked replacement. You would have seen Woodrow Wilson, the first Democratic president in a generation, take office on a platform of domestic reform only to be consumed by wartime regimentation, domestic turmoil and shameful outbreaks of racial and ethnic intolerance.

Obeying the law of unintended consequences, Wilson would create a host of new federal boards, agencies and commissions to set prices, allocate scarce resources, and engage in social engineering on an unprecedented scale. The president’s son-in-law ran the nation’s railroads. Wilson himself was empowered to dictate the price of sugar and the size of baby carriages. If the champion of self-determination overseas remained staunch in his opposition to women’s suffrage, he at least liberated American females from the steel corset – yet another wartime expedient that freed up 8,000 tons of precious metal with which to float a pair of battleships.

In other respects the Wilson Years were anything but liberating. Between 1916 and 1920, tax revenues multiplied sixfold. During the same period the national debt ballooned from $1 billion to nearly $26 billion, even as wartime inflation sent the cost of living skyrocketing. Factor in the postwar wave of strikes, red baiting, and official repression, and it’s small wonder that voters in 1920 should long for what Warren Harding memorably, if ungrammatically, called “normalcy.”

Acknowledging Harding’s good intentions, his constructive diplomacy and genuine progress toward reducing the size and cost of government after the war, there is much to confirm Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s biting characterization of our 29th president. “Harding was not a bad man,” said Princess Alice. “He was just a slob.” Quite apart from the whiskey and endless poker games, the spreadeagle oratory and worse love poems, there is Harding’s Ohio Gang–a boozy fraternity of grafters personified by one Jess Smith, the administration’s court jester, who summed up his influence peddling career in a trademark song:

My sister sells snow to the snowbirds
My father makes bootlegger gin…
My mother she takes in washing
My God, how the money rolls in!

And so it did, at least until Jess committed suicide under mysterious circumstances that threw no flattering light on the dead man’s Washington roommate, Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Harding, indulging his own death wish, took off for Alaska and the west coast in the summer of 1923. But he could not wholly escape the scandals tearing at the vitals of the Veterans Bureau, or the much larger speculations that would come to be known by the umbrella title of Teapot Dome. Enter Calvin Coolidge, the Yankee fatalist who once wrote: “Things are so ordered in the world that those who violate its law cannot escape the penalty. Nature is inexorable. If men do not follow the truth they cannot live.”

Within months of taking office, Harding oil was washed away by Coolidge kerosene. Skillfully the new president maneuvered to take the political initiative away from investigators on Capitol Hill and give it to not one but two special counsels, one Democrat and one Republican. He arranged an impromptu confrontation between Daugherty and his most vehement accuser, Idaho’s Senator William Borah. For over two hours the bitter antagonists argued their case before him as Coolidge kept his counsel. Finally, white with rage, Daugherty stalked from the room. When he later refused to provide Justice Department files to a congressional inquiry, Coolidge seized the opportunity and demanded Daugherty’s resignation.

Through his deft handling of the crisis, Coolidge took the wind out of Democratic sails, defused the Harding scandals and cemented his own lock on the 1924 GOP nomination. The new attorney general, Harlan F. Stone, terminated his department’s antiradical divisions, putting an end to unlawful searches, seizures and wiretapping. For his part, Coolidge ordered the release of 31 political prisoners still behind bars for violating the wartime Sedition Act.

Although more than sufficient to win him a second term, the president’s political skills alone hardly account for his phenomenal success with the electorate. Nor can he be explained away as Justice Holmes did when he wrote privately that “While I don’t expect anything astonishing from (Coolidge) I don’t want anything astonishing,” To be sure, voters welcomed Coolidge Prosperity. They admired the President who restored public confidence in the White House, slashed the war time debt by one-third, and dramatically reduced the tax burden, on no one more than low income workers. By the time he left office, Coolidge saw to it that 98% of his countrymen paid no income taxes at all. And 93% of the tax burden was home by the wealthiest Americans-in sharp contrast to the rates prevailing under Wilson.

“I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves,” Coolidge declared in his 1925 inaugural address. “I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom.” No doubt others would disagree. Though widely dispersed, Coolidge Prosperity was by no means universal. Agriculture, in particular, was depressed long before 1929. Had Coolidge exercised more foresight; had he employed his political clout to forge a more unified Republican front on Capitol Hill; had he worried less about White House provisions and more about Wall Street’s speculation and installment plan consumerism … had the young Federal Reserve more skillfully managed interest rates and the money supply; had a wave of new autos, radios, and other marvels not glutted the market; had banks been more honest and Congress more cooperative, might Coolidge have interpreted his mandate more creatively?

To argue the affirmative is to dismiss the core beliefs of a president who, more than most, steered by the North Star of conviction. Not to mention the cranky integrity of one who boasted “I don’t work at night, if a man can’t finish his job in the day he’s not smart.” Proponents of the strong presidency take heart from Theodore Roosevelt’s breathtaking assertion of executive stewardship, which justifies virtually any act not specifically prohibited by the Constitution. Much less well known is Coolidge’s theory of stewardship, employed, not on behalf of endangered wildlife or the victims of tainted meat, but the taxpayer. Said Coolidge, “It is because in their hour of timidity the Congress becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities that the President comes more and more to stand as the champion of the rights of the whole country.”

If you seek the origins of the Coolidge legend, look no further than this. To more conventional politicians the man in the White House was an emotionally stilted accident of history, incapable of the grand vision or sweeping gesture. To most voters, on the other hand, he was a leader of rare integrity and immovable principle. If Coolidge wasn’t exactly one of them, he was at one with them. When he forcefully denied the right of the Boston police to strike; when he vetoed a soldiers’ pension bill with the warning that bought patriotism is not patriotism; when he opposed flood relief legislation fearing that taxpayer dollars would be siphoned off by private business interests; when he said it was better to kill a bad piece of legislation than to pass a good one, Coolidge reminded his countrymen that the only weakness of representative government was the imperfect human beings who administered it. The most retiring of chief executives was the most rugged of individualists.

At his death in January, 1933, no tribute meant more than that of H. L. Mencken. With the perspective of time Mencken had come to reconsider his scathing criticism of the Coolidge presidency. Contrasting Coolidge with Wilson “the World Saver” and Hoover “the Wonder Boy,” Mencken anticipated the revisionist scholarship of post-Reagan America. “Should the day ever dawn,” said the Sage of Baltimore, “when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Calvin’s bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.” Not a bad epitaph for one whose first thought on being roused from bed in the middle of the night and thrust into the presidency was, “I believe I can swing it.”


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