Essays, Papers & Addresses

Coolidge’s Relevance

by Hugh Sidey ©1998

Hugh Sidey has been writing about the American presidency since covering Dwight Eisenhower for Life Magazine in 1957. He later became political and White House correspondent for Time and has served as bureau chief and author of the column, “The Presidency,” since 1966. He has written or contributed to seven books on the presidency.

The more that I read and hear about Presidents the less I seem to know. After four decades of plodding along at the side of the caravan of the United States Presidency, I can claim only one undiminished conviction: no President was as bad or as good as claimed either by his enthusiasts or his detractors, with the possible exception of George Washington who had to start it all.

Too many of the forces of our times–political, social, legal, military and human–come to bear on that office for anyone to perfectly assess and balance them even after history has marched on. Was John Kennedy’s romantic view of the office where he fancied himself on stage with De Gaulle, Churchill and Roosevelt so grand a self-assessment that it contributed to our involvement in Vietnam? Was the fact that Lyndon Johnson grew up in the shadow of the Alamo and honored that legend a part of the reason he so dramatically escalated the Vietnam war? Was his hero worship of activist Franklin Roosevelt the force behind the Great Society, for good or ill?

Was Jimmy Carter’s self-perceived special relationship with God a factor in his vain belief he could junk the old nuclear policy with the Soviets and ride with the angels. Did Bill Clinton’s reading of history that every great Presidency was founded on some kind of extravaganza lead him to propose the health care monstrosity that collapsed inside its own Jerry-built scaffolding?

I reach no firm conclusions on any of the above but I do wonder whether more restraint, patience and the courage to say no to a clamoring world might not have saved us some of the national anguish of these times. And that brings us to Calvin Coolidge who may have understood himself, his times and the office of the Presidency far better than his critics contend. There are some lessons to be learned at the feet of this wiry, tough, modest man. I have concluded that there is about every President an elusive quality that helped bring him to the pinnacle but is not easily mined from the log books or the memoirs of aides or his own writings. The best historians capture that quality, many of the others simply confuse us. In fact, I am almost ready to argue publicly that there really have been no absolute failures in the Presidency. Some Presidents have done better than others but the closer we look we find evidence that every President left a positive mark of some kind.

I invoke Adlai Stevenson who upon leaving Bloomington, Indiana to accept the Democratic party’s nomination in 1952 declared, “in quiet places reason abounds, in quiet people there is vision and purpose, many things are revealed to the humble that are hidden from the great.” I think I hear an echo from Plymouth Notch, though I doubt that Adlai had Coolidge in mind when he gave that short speech. Indeed, I think he filched the central idea from Lincoln. But I would add a couple of aphorisms I fashioned from the original: behind simplicity lies thought and in brevity there is intelligence. If I read the new books on Coolidge correctly both these thoughts apply to him.

My first career awareness of Coolidge came from a man who covered him. Dick Strout was a good Harvard liberal who wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and did the column TRB in the New Republic and remained until he died a few years ago a shoe-leather reporter. During slack time at the White House I loved to talk to Strout and hear stories about Warren Harding and Coolidge and all the Presidents that followed. It was plain that Strout was fascinated with Coolidge and thought far more of him than most historians. Should-or could–Coolidge have taken action that would have thwarted the Great Depression as some suggest? Strout was not sure. He saw Coolidge preside at a time when the Presidency was far less powerful on any given day than many industrialists, bankers and even some governors and senators. Coolidge got out of the way and America roared. Dick more or less concluded that the gathering economic maelstrom was really too much for any President to understand or stop.

What intrigues me as much as anything about Coolidge was his ability to look at himself honestly. For example, look at the literature about why he decided not to run for a second term. He made a statement to one of his Cabinet officers that the time had come for the government to spend money (to bolster consumption) and that he did not know how to spend, he knew how to save. I am not sure that in 40 years of reporting I ever heard a President make such a confession. In our age we seem to demand total knowledge from our Presidents and they seem all too inclined to try to furnish it. I recall back in those days when I used to hang out at the White House there might be presidential declarations on 15 or 20 different issues and, of course, if we happened to encounter the President in the flesh he was expected to comment intelligently on any or all of the issues. Often they failed.

I recall when Gerald Ford went to Viadovostok to meet Leonid Brezhnev. After the first meeting the Soviet “press” boiled out of their quarters to confront their American counterparts with ill-concealed contempt for “our dumbkopf” President. Ford, they claimed, had to turn to Henry Kissinger when nuclear armaments were discussed. He just shrugged and told Brezhnev he did not know the subject. Indeed, Ford had only been President a few weeks and was not up to speed on that issue. His candor to many of us was quite refreshing but it is not the rule of the day in presidential politics.

Some years ago there resided in Washington an aide to Lyndon Johnson named Horace Busby. He was an astute political observer who wrote many of Johnson’s best speeches and also his stunning announcement that he would not seek reelection in 1968. Busby used to keep a list of great problems that never happened. It included such things as the collapse of the international banking system, the triumph of communism in Asia and Latin America, a world food shortage, another squeeze play on Berlin. By his count 80 or 90 percent of these thunderous pronouncements by so-called experts never materialized. I don’t know if Busby got his idea from Coolidge but Coolidge more than once advised other politicians to be more patient, that problems coming down the road as often as not run into the ditch before arriving at the White House.

But the last thing Washington wants is an end to problems. If government is your work then you quite naturally want it to prosper and grow. If writing about government is your income the more you have to write about the better. If attacking government is your cause then, like Ralph Nader, the larger the battleground the better. I once wrote that if Nader ever got up in the morning and Washington did not have a problem for him he would be devastated. I got a tortured rebuttle on how I had it all wrong.

I am no expert on the pressures that were brought to bear on Coolidge in his time. Certainly, they were not as burdensome in those years or as complex as they are today, Yet, he was faced with a welter of expert opinion from academics, journalists, industrialists, bankers and other politicians. He did not run away from the world but he clung to his convictions that had been tempered from childhood.

I think he had it right that the American system was not for the greater glory of government and those who work in it, but for the private citizen. At least that was the case in his time. I believe we are in a similar era now. But we all hear anguished screams of this huge political industry which has grown up in Washington that the Presidency is languishing and opportunity for great national benefits is slipping away. I suppose that is correct–if you want a dictatorship. My feeling is that we will get to these goals in due time but right now is a moment for people to look at themselves and their lives and take more responsibility for their own fulfillment. Oddly, I think Clinton above most of the other politicians in this era came to the same conclusion after his disastrous early years. He spouted the mantra found in the great schools of government and in the media that bigger government was necessary and is here to stay.

Having the courage to say no, to step aside and let the country move ahead is hazardous to your political health. My suspicion is that more politicians would acknowledge the fact these days if the political price, defeat, were not so high. Coolidge probably could have won again. The country liked him in his time, but with a huge media always in overdrive it is difficult now. I believe that at least part of the reason for the defeat of George Bush, who ran the government about as well as any of the Presidents I have known, is that too often he had the courage to do nothing. He wisely did not give the middle class a tax break. He did not rush to Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Empire with $50 billion in American money. He counseled caution, patience and a little parsimony. And he lost the election.

So what I guess that I am suggesting is that all of us–teachers, writers, politicians–should take a quiet time with a good Coolidge text and be prepared to acknowledge that right now in America maybe we are not as important as we think we are. And that different leadership techniques and different leaders are required in different times. That is a hard thing to do. When I tried the theory on a friend he asked, “Without big government getting bigger, we are out of work.”