Coolidge and the Zen of Politics: How An Aloof, Reticent and Austere Man Achieved Success in Politics
by Hendrik Booraem ©1998
Hendrick Boornem V earned a Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins. His The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge and His World, 1885-1895, was published in 1994. He has written similar studies of the adolescent years of James A. Garfield and Andrew Jackson and is currently working on a book about Gerald R. Ford.
The central problem of Calvin Coolidge’s career has never been more clearly stated than by an Amherst classmate of his, Jay Stocking. In a letter to Coolidge’s biographer Claude Fuess, reminiscing about college days sixty years earlier, Stocking wrote: “I was not one of those who expected Coolidge to have any spectacular career. I did not think he would become famous. The last place in the world I should have expected him to succeed was politics. He lacked small talk, and he was never known, I suspect, to slap a man on the back. He rarely laughed. He was anything but a mixer. The few who got into personal contact with him had to go the whole way.” 1 Stocking’s account of Coolidge’s behavior is echoed by many other Amherst classmates; but the arresting statement in it, the one I intend to focus on, is the offhand comment: “The last place in the world I should have expected him to succeed was politics.”
In the 1960s, the political scientist James David Barber in his book on twentieth-century American presidents pigeonholed Coolidge as what he called a “passive-negative” Chief Executive–one who spent relatively little time on the duties of the job and who got relatively little satisfaction from it. He then restated Stocking’s observation in his own academic terms: “The factors are consistent–but how are we to account for the man’s political role-taking? Why is someone who does little in politics and enjoys it less there at all?” 2
That is the question I would like to consider for a few minutes this morning: why Coolidge was in politics at all. Stocking’s observation was right: Coolidge did find contact with other people uncongenial, and politicking did not come easily to him. But Barber’s question, I will argue, does have an answer: there were satisfactions for Coolidge in politics, and he put considerable effort into attaining them.
There can be no doubt that Coolidge experienced extreme discomfort in trying to deal socially with strangers, or people he did not know well. His inability to make small talk, legendary around Washington, earned him the nickname “Silent Cal” and gave rise to many well-known anecdotes. The unspoken premise of these stories, some of them very funny, was that reticence was a strategy Coolidge adopted because it suited him to do so. This was a misstatement. There was nothing voluntary about it; Coolidge found social contact excruciating.
To his friend and admirer, the Boston businessman Frank Stearns, who had been urging him to broaden his acquaintance and meet more people, Coolidge once told a story so revealing of his true feelings that almost every biographer has felt compelled to include it in one version or another. “When I was a boy,” Coolidge told Stearns, “there were perhaps fifty inhabitants of Plymouth. I knew them all, of course. But if I was aware that one of them happened to be in my mother’s kitchen, it was a little short of torture for me to go in. At the age of twelve, I made up my mind that I must overcome this feeling. Gradually I did, but some of it still stays with me.”3 In other words, his shyness had been torture to him as a boy; now it was less than torture, perhaps only discomfort. But it was still there. And he said this while he was Vice President.
Intense shyness, according to students of the subject, is “a subjective and entirely horrifying experience,” and so it seems to have been for Coolidge. A private letter to Stearns on another occasion during his Vice Presidency, was a cry of anguish: “You have no conception of what people do to me. Even small things bother Me.” 4
It hardly needs underscoring how atypical such feelings are in a successful politician. Most people in politics enjoy contact with others and go out of their way to initiate it–the present occupant of the White House is a good example. They use such contact, and their personal charm, to persuade others to carry out their goals. Not Coolidge. Justice Harlan Stone, another Amherst classmate of his, told William Allen White, “It was very rare for him to make any effort by way of social contact to impress his views upon others or to influence their actions.” 5
Coolidge was unusual in American history, but he was not unique. Another major political leader who was conspicuously not a “people person” was Massachusetts’ own Charles Sumner, a serious, self-absorbed, humorless man whose career casts a contrasting light on Coolidge’s. Sumner, like Coolidge, was an impossible dinner-party guest; he had no small talk at all. But he won election to four Senate terms, for an easily discernible reason: he was the political symbol for Massachusetts abolitionism in the Civil War years. His icy integrity seemed evidence of his pure, passionate commitment to that cause. Sumner was an American example of a type fairly common in world history, the cold, impersonal ideological leader. But this type is not much help in explaining Calvin Coolidge, who had no devoted following and no ideology to promote. Coolidge did have well-defined beliefs about government, to which I will return later; but they were not revolutionary, as Sumner’s were. 6
If it was not ideological fervor that overrode Coolidge’s fears and got him into politics, it certainly was not a thirst for money or power. During the Gilded Age there were American city and state bosses who had practically no charisma, back room types who had risen through the party organization by their efficiency and single mindedness. When Coolidge became nationally prominent in the 1920s, American intellectuals seem to have taken him for one of these men, dull, limited, and actuated by sordid motives. 7
Of course they were wrong. Coolidge showed remarkably little interest in concentrating power at any stage of his career. As President he left as much administrative work as possible entirely to his Cabinet, justifying this approach as the most efficient way of using human resources. He suggested legislation to Congress but rarely exerted any pressure to get it passed. (“I have never felt it was my duty to attempt to coerce Senators and Representatives, or to take reprisals,” he wrote in the autobiography. “I felt I had discharged my duty when I had done the best I could with them.”) 8 Power was not enough of a stimulant to him to change his daily routine; as President, historians have observed with wonder, Coolidge still followed the schedule of a small-town lawyer or New England farmer, going to bed early, getting up with the chickens, and napping for a couple of hours after lunch. The life of a Chief Executive, with its trappings of power, had no more fascination for him per se than life in Plymouth or Northarnpton. 9
Money did not motivate him either. The Coolidge lifestyle was not lavish. When the Coolidges came to Washington in 1921, they were living in a two-family house in Northampton; when he left office, they returned to it. Coolidge expected no pecuniary reward from his office holding, He wrote drily in the Autobiography that ex-presidents, fortunately, are not supported at public expense, “so they are not expected to set an example encouraging to a leisure class.” 10
One other motivation should be considered as a possible reason for an exceedingly shy man’s entering politics: intellectual arrogance. Another Massachusetts president, John Quincy Adams, described himself as “a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners,” a “gloomy misanthropist” in the opinion of his political opponents. 11 In other words, he was still another of the interpersonally challenged politicians New England has had a history of presenting to the rest of the country. Adams was in politics partly because of his name, partly because of his unquestioned ability, but mostly because of his conviction that he was the most qualified man to serve his country if the opportunity offered–a quiet, absolutely firm intellectual arrogance that was accepted by a good number of American voters because of his illustrious descent.
But there is no counterpart of this attitude in Coolidge’s story–indeed, quite the reverse. An especially poignant passage from Coolidge’s autobiography deals with the death of his son, Calvin, Jr., when Coolidge was running for election to the office he had inherited by Harding’s death. Coolidge describes the boy’s suffering and his own inability to save him from death–then he adds “I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.” 12 The notion that one should have to pay a price for occupying the White House seems to rest on a belief that one is unworthy, incapable of attaining it honestly, without some kind of payment. It resembles what present-day psychologists have described as the “impostor phenomenon” that affects high-level executives in the private sector as well as public service–a belief that one is fundamentally incapable of the duties of the office one occupies, and that getting to that post was some sort of fluke. 13 Coolidge, I am suggesting, felt unworthy of the Presidency, and feared that his son’s death was divine judgment on his unworthiness.
This feeling of unworthiness, low self-esteem if you will, is where I would like to begin my explanation of Coolidge’s involvement in politics. There is much evidence for it. To begin with, psychologists find that people who suffer from extreme shyness, as Coolidge did, generally have low feelings of self-esteem as well.14 Several people who were close to him called attention to behavior patterns that suggested this trait. Ike Hoover, the chief White House usher, noted his unusual sensitivity and self-consciousness, his capacity to fly into a rage over trifles. Robert Washburn, a journalist and politician who knew him during his Boston years, mentioned the same characteristic. “Our hero has never known what it is to be happy,” he wrote of Coolidge. “He is sensitive, with a full appreciation of his limitations.” And adding what was then a trendy diagnosis in 1920s psychology, Washburn noted, “He has an inferiority complex.” 15
Pop psychology from reporters and members of the White House staff is, I realize, not conclusive; there is more evidence from Coolidge himself, which I will bring forward in a moment. First, however, I want to draw a distinction. A popular theory about politics, which some of you may have heard, associated especially with the name of Harold Lasswell, holds that many politicians have low self-esteem, are basically unsure of themselves. and went into politics precisely because contact with the voters satisfied their need for affection and reaffirmed their sense of self-worth. 16 Even if I believed this theory, which I don’t, I would have to point out that it has nothing in common with Coolidge’s case. Charming the voters and winning reassurance based on personal contact was precisely what he was not good at. His feelings of inadequacy were not to be assuaged by the crowd’s approval. Throughout his career, I will suggest,. Coolidge was performing for an audience of one: his father, John Coolidge.
John Coolidge was far and away the most important person in his son’s life from an early age. Coolidge lost his mother when he was twelve; his only sibling, a sister, died when he was seventeen. Calvin and his father were left with each other. Coolidge found his father an impressive, even awesome, audience, and he was not shy about proclaiming his inferiority to him. “My father had qualities greater than any I possess,” he said late in life. “It always seemed possible for him to form an unerring judgment of men and things. I cannot recall that I ever knew of his doing a wrong thing.” 17
Trying to live up to the standards of such a superhuman being was a difficult, frustrating task, and it was easy to entertain feelings of inadequacy. Witness a letter Coolidge, aged twenty-five, wrote his father in 1897. They were debating how to launch his law practice: “I have tried to do the best I could by my feeble efforts to carry out other plans which did not appeal to me very strongly and if I have sometimes faltered, if I have failed to meet with the success you desired, forgive me–I think I tried my best.” 18
Coolidge, not surprisingly, was hypersensitive to criticism from his father and often nursed his hurt feelings for years. Several years after graduating from Amherst, he kidded his father in a letter: “You made a good deal of fun of me when I was in college for putting two o’s in lose– it is with some satisfaction that I note you have now adopted the same way.” That criticism had stuck with him for five years. 19 Similarly, in his senior year at college, Coolidge wrote an essay on the principles of the American Revolution which, he informed his father, was awarded a silver medal as the best essay submitted at Amherst. John Coolidge’s comment was disparaging, the medal, he wrote, would buy no bread and butter. The essay went on to a nationwide contest, where it won the first prize, a gold medal. Coolidge’s reaction reveals how much his father’s comments had stung; he tucked the medal in a drawer and said nothing to John about it, letting him learn of the award indirectly, through the newspapers. 20
In later years, Coolidge put the best construction possible on his father’s criticism of the medal. “He had questioned some whether I was really making anything of my education, in pretense I now think,” Coolidge wrote in the Autobiography, “not because he doubted it but because he wished to impress me with the desirability of demonstrating it.” But there is no question that at the time it hurt. 21
This same kind of cosmetic reconstruction after the fact applies to the principal point of contention between father and son, the choice of a career for Coolidge. Young Calvin, it is clear, did not want to go to college at all. The first time he was sent to Amherst, he developed an illness, which seems to have been largely psychosomatic, at the entrance examinations and had to drop out, delaying his entrance by an entire year. The second time he enrolled, he came home at midwinter and begged not to have to continue; but as he wrote John in 1897, ,you sent me back to college five years ago.” When he graduated, he wanted either to go on to law school or to return to his home village of Plymouth; John also vetoed both ideas and insisted that he enroll as a clerk in a law office. Over a period of seven or eight years, in other words, young Coolidge saw his desires and his plans repeatedly rejected and overridden by his father. 22
This library, as it happens, is a rather appropriate venue for talking about an American president whose early life was dominated by his father’s purposes. But John Coolidge’s motivation is a little harder to figure out than Joe Kennedy’s. Kennedy wanted power and recognition for his sons. John Coolidge worried a lot about money; it may have been his judgment that his shy, bookish son was unlikely to succeed in business, that he needed the armor of a college education and a professional certificate simply to support himself in adult life.
Calvin Coolidge, looking back in maturity on the experience of his father’s dominance, convinced himself he had found the key to his motivation. He mentions it in the account of his midnight inaugural in August 1923; his father’s voice trembled on that occasion, he observed, with “the thought of the many sacrifices he had made to place me where I was … and all the tenderness and care he had lavished upon me … in the hope that I might sometime rise to a position of importance.” All along, in other words, John Coolidge’s purpose had been to put his son into the presidency or a comparable position. 23
There is really no evidence to back up this statement. Not all of John Coolidge’s letters to Calvin have survived, but in those that have there is no trace of a suggestion that Calvin should go into politics, no offer of political aid. Coolidge’s belief seems to be an interpretation that he put on the facts long afterwards. One can see it taking form in a letter he wrote to his father in 1925, two years after his swearing in. Speaking of the presidency, he said: “I am sure I came to it largely by your bringing up and your example. If that was what you have wanted you have much to be thankful for that you have lived to so great an age to see it.” 24
The way it actually worked, I think, was this. A shy young man, dominated and frequently criticized by a parent whom he saw as superior, Coolidge desperately wanted to please his father. Although the two men had very different personalities and interests in some ways, there were a few areas they both regarded as interesting and important. One was firm management; they discussed the details of maple sugaring and the care of livestock at length in their letters, and John seems to have considered Calvin his equal perhaps his superior, in making and judging maple sugar. 25 Another was politics.
From childhood Coolidge attended the Plymouth town meetings with his father. As a boy he carried apples and popcorn balls to sell, because, as he relates in the Autobiography, “my grandmother said my father had done so when he was a boy, and I was exceedingly anxious to grow up to be like him.” 26 He watched as John was elected to a string of town offices: tax collector, town agent, state representative, superintendent of education. He enjoyed watching John canvass for support from his neighbors and keep a mental tally of who was for him and against him. His memories of town meetings were wholly of practical politics, counting heads and putting together majorities. 27
This kind of politics was a pleasurable experience for Coolidge and remained so most of his life. He evidently thought about it a lot, or at least one might draw that conclusion from a dream he had as a teenager. It was during the presidential campaign of 1888, Harrison versus Cleveland, nine days before Election Day. Coolidge woke up and scribbled on a back page of his diary: “dreamed Cleveland carried Indiana by some 4000 votes and New York by 30.” Evidently he wrote his dream down because he wanted to see if it would come true. It was a professional politician’s dream: Indiana and New York were critical states in the election, and the margins he dreamed of were not unreasonable. (His numbers, however, turned out to be wrong; he was a politician, not a prophet.) 28
In college, at the end of sophomore year, Coolidge’s roommate decided to run for the editorial board of the yearbook, and Coolidge got involved in his campaign, buttonholing classmates to ask for their support. He did not find this difficult to do, apparently. Psychologists have found that reticent people are comfortable with interpersonal transactions that are structured, that have a clear beginning and end; open-ended social interaction is what terrifies them. Coolidge’s behavior fits that pattern; emulating his father, he got out and spoke to classmates who hardly knew him before. 29 He did the same thing in senior year, when he ran for and won the position of Grove Orator, the student who delivered the comic valedictory address. “I put more work into it than Alfred did into Freemen’s Meeting,” he wrote John, comparing himself to a Plymouth man who had recently been active in local politics, “and was elected on the first ballot 53 to 18 against a man from Brooklyn.” 30
When Coolidge wrote his father about politics, he often supplied the numbers in detail; this was the kind of information that they both enjoyed. An example is his letter after being elected mayor of Northampton in 1909: “1 and 5 are strong democrat wards. 1 is about 100 and last year 5 went 175. You see I cut 11 to 20 and 5 to 75 and got big majority in 2, 3, and 4. Ward 6 is about even but there is a row on out there so no republican can get only one faction of the republican strength in that ward. Ward 7 is democrat by about 40.” He went on to analyze the vote by ethnic groups, in terms a little more familiar to present-day political workers: “I got all the Italians, Jews, Polish, most of the French and hundreds of Irish. 31
What I am saying, then, is that the part of politics Coolidge found most congenial was local political activity: getting out and canvassing for votes, calculating the margins needed for victory. He liked it in itself, and found it doubly congenial because it was an activity his father shared and approved of. He was good at it; he worked hard and almost always won his elections, and these triumphs boosted his sense of accomplishment still further. The first reason he cited for running for mayor, for instance, was that “the honor would be one that would please my father.” 32 He and his father enjoyed comparing their political careers, often in the dry language of statistics, like baseball fans. One comparison both of them found meaningful–they cited it on separate occasions–was this: Calvin Coolidge was precisely two months and two days old when his father was first elected to the Vermont legislature. In turn, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature when his firstborn son John was two months and two days old. Political trivia? Precisely; that was the level on which politics engrossed both men. 33
Coolidge’s election as mayor in 1909 began fifteen years of uninterrupted political success, rising from one office to another, aided by four or five truly remarkable strokes of luck that he could not have anticipated or planned for, and culminating in the presidency. As he says in the Autobiography, simply, almost numbly, “I did not plan for it but it came.” 34 What he did plan for and shared with his father were the political maneuvering that got him from one office to the next, and finally to the vice presidency in 1920. In 1923, of course, it was his father who swore him in as president and gave him his symbolic blessing. (One should point out that there was some doubt as to John Coolidge’s authority, on the basis of his Vermont notary’s commission, to administer the presidential oath, and that Coolidge took it again in Washington to be on the safe side.) 35
On March 18, 1926, about three years later, John Coolidge died in Plymouth. The President, tied up with public business, was unable to be at his father’s side. Historians have commented on a general lethargy or weakness that overtook the Coolidge administration during the full term that began in 1925. This afternoon we will hear Robert Gilbert talk about that phenomenon and connect it with the psychological trauma Coolidge suffered when his son died in 1924. But it might make sense to consider the implications of the father’s death as well. With it, Coolidge lost the benign, powerful force that, as he saw it, had steered him into high office, with whom he had shared his victories and strategies, for whom he had done the best he could to prove his worth. Now there was no one to satisfy, and he was left in an unfriendly milieu saddled with irksome duties. A loss like this could easily have been responsible for draining the meaning and commitment from his presidency.
During most of his years in politics, however, Coolidge’s approach to politics was distinctive, because his motivation was so unusual. He had none of the common political goals–money, power, policy aims–but only an internal need to satisfy. Other American leaders have been accused of being in politics on an ego trip; for Coolidge, one could fairly call it an ego salvage expedition. Trying to prove himself to his father by doing the best job possible, he approached political performance in the spirit of a Zen master, detached from results, doing the thing for its own sake. The practical problems of compromise that beset politicians consolidating power, forming alliances, controlling money, meeting the needs of influential groups–bothered him very little. He concentrated on the task itself–studied problems and made recommendations, expressed his views in eloquent but somewhat impersonal speeches, and made executive decisions, sometimes difficult ones, as in the Boston police strike. But he was relatively unconcerned with outcomes. immediately after the police strike, he came up for election to a second term as governor. “This is a very uncertain election,” he wrote his father; “more than last year it may go strongly for me or against me. At any rate I shall not have anything to regret. It is necessary to make sacrifices for the welfare of the state. I am willing to make mine. 36
The voters of Massachusetts and the United States, I believe, in Coolidge’s rhetoric and in his executive actions, sensed his indifference to consequences. They interpreted it as fearlessness, a quality voters admire in politicians, and repeatedly gave him substantial majorities. They freed him to an unusual degree, to govern entirely in accordance with his principles.
Those principles, which were his father’s as well as his own, were simple, and Zen-like in their simplicity and stress on self-discipline. They sprang from assumptions based on an upbringing in the bleak New England hill country. Resources were limited; therefore, the main task of public service was to govern efficiently and not waste the people’s money, to do what needed doing and to refrain from doing more. Corruption and extravagance were the two main dangers.
One particular temptation to be avoided was the urge to long-range planning. Coolidge and his father shared a preference for letting things evolve and responding only to immediate needs. “Do the day’s work,” Coolidge’s favorite maxim, was not only an injunction to work hard, but also an admonition that leaders needed to concentrate on what was in front of them–to do the day’s work, not the year’s, not the decade’s, not the century’s–not tie up the people’s money in grandiose and probably futile efforts to change society. His attitude comes out clearly in the well-known comment about his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, one of the great planners of twentieth-century America: “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.” 37
Coolidge’s legacy, then, is a presidency founded on principle–indeed, an entire political career based on the principles of frugality and restraint, and on the belief that society is capable of transforming itself rather than an inert mass waiting for the healing power of government to transform it. In this regard, he made a revealing comment in the Autobiography, talking about his governorship, which was a very active one. It had to be, he explained, because Massachusetts was in transition from a heavily regulated wartime economy to more normal peacetime conditions. “Nothing was natural, everything was artificial,” as he put it. But by the end of his two terms, in his words, “people had found themselves again, and were ready to undertake the great work of reconstruction in which they have since been so successfully engaged.” 38 In other words, it was now time for government to back off.
“Genius is the ability to harmonize with circumstances,” Coolidge had written his father during his sophomore year at Amherst, doubtless unaware that he was echoing the teaching of the Tao Te Ching: “if you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.” 39 At the end of a century scarred with disasters brought about by governments’ attempts to remodel society, this point of view, which Coolidge held in essentials all his career, offers a refreshing contrast.
H.L. Mencken wrote a piece on Coolidge just after his death in 1933 that showed, if not an appreciation of Coolidge’s style, at least an understanding of the dangers it avoided. “We suffer most,” he wrote, “not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof. Discounting Harding as a cipher, Coolidge was preceded by one world Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant?” 40 What enlightened American, indeed. Sixty-five years later, with the benefit of ample experience from our own country and abroad, Mencken’s point–and Coolidge’s–looks more and more persuasive.
4. Gerald M. Phillips, “Reticence: A Perspective on Social Withdrawal” in John A. Daly and James C. McCroskey, eds., Avoiding, Communication: Shyness. Reticence, and Communication Apprehension (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishers, 1984), 58; Coolidge to Frank W. Stearns, 16 March 1922. Stearns Papers, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.
7. See, for example, the closing paragraphs of Oswald Garrison Villard’s editorial, “Warren G. Harding,” The Nation 15 August 1923. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1995), 16-18, points out that most Manhattan intellectuals of the period ignored politics and thought it incapable of making significant contributions to American culture.
13. See, e.g., Pauline Clance, The Imposter Phenomenon: Overcoming, the Fear That Haunts Your Success (Atlanta: Peachtree Press, 1985), and J.C. Harvey and C. Katz, If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like A Fake? (New York: Random House, 1985).
23. Autobiography, 173-174.
24. To John Coolidge, 2 August 1925, in Lathem, 211.
25 Booraem, 76.
26. Autobiography, 23.
27. Ernest C. Carpenter, The Boyhood Days of President Calvin Coolidge (Rutland, VT: The Tuttle Company, 1925),127-128; Autobiography, 25.
28. Booraem, 87-88.
29 Booraem, 167.
30. To John Coolidge, 21 September 1894, in Lathem, 71-72, footnote 4.
31. To John Coolidge, 25 December 1909, in Lathem, 113.
32. Autobiography, 99.
33. Autobiography, 15; “My Son, Calvin Coolidge,” as told by John C. Coolidge to Joe Toye, Boston Traveler, 14 August 1923.
34 Autobiography, 99.
35. Fuess, 315.
36. To John Coolidge, 10 October 1919, in Latham, 152.
37. Quoted in Paul Johnson, Modern Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 229. On “Do the day’s work,” see Booraem, 189.
38. Autobiography, 136-137.
39. To John Coolidge, 13 November 1892, in Lathem, 42; Tao Te Ching, ed. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 57.
40. Alistair Cooke, ed., The Vintage Mencken (New York: Vintage Press, 1956), 223.