Essays, Papers & Addresses

Coolidge the Victim?

by Hendrik Booraem V.

Hendrik Booraem V was born in New York City and grew up in South Carolina. A social and political historian, he was educated at the University of Virginia and The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the State University of New York, College at Purchase; Rutgers University at Camden; and Lehigh University. His previous books include The Formation of the Republican Party in New York and The Road to Respectability: James A. Garfield and His World, 1844-1852. His special interest is in the early lives of American presidents viewed as fragments of American social history.

When Dr. Robert Gilbert of Northeastern University, an expert of presidential disability, spoke at the Kennedy Library several years ago, he demonstrated a thorough familiarity with the primary sources and secondary literature on Calvin Coolidge, and an ability to marshal his facts into a clear, interesting narrative. These same qualities are on display in his new book: The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression. Admirers of the President, particularly those who feel that he has been tormented enough over the years by the caricatures of liberal historians, may not relish the title; nevertheless, the book is well written and presents a thesis that demands attention from students of the presidency and the 1920s as well as Coolidge fans.

Though easy to read, The Tormented President is hardly pleasant reading. The story it has to relate is grim. It is, in essence, a short biography focused on the President’s psychological and emotional life, beginning with his infancy. Its thesis is that the tragic death of Calvin Coolidge, Junior, in 1924, caused by an infection he contracted while playing tennis on the White House grounds, reawakened the memory of childhood traumas in a way that threw his father into a deep depression and emotional paralysis. This condition, which lasted until his death in 1933, effectively divided the Coolidge presidency into two parts: a year of accomplishment and four years that were unsuccessful, unhappy, and dysfunctional.” While the President coped with his psychological trauma, “the nation lost its president.” The failures of the Coolidge administration, consequently, can be chalked up to sheer bad luck — the combination of an unforeseeable tragedy and a leader unequipped to control his inner reaction to it.

The book spells out the personal consequences of young Calvin’s death in painful detail. The President’s sleeping habits changed; he spent much of the daytime asleep, seeking relief in unconsciousness. Many things he saw reminded him of his son’s death, and he often expressed his pain to acquaintances. He became snappish with his wife and his surviving son, as well as with the White House staff. He lost his zest for life: the “power and glory of the Presidency,” as he put it in his autobiography, departed. But the book’s main focus is on the political consequences: that the nation, for more than four years, had a Chief Executive incapable of carrying out his duties.

To some Coolidge fans, this thesis may seem a backhanded attempt to rehabilitate the President from the charges commonly leveled at him by the New Deal historians who long dominated writing about the 1920s. They argued that Coolidge was wedded to an outmoded, do-nothing conception of leadership, which he irresponsibly pursued while ignoring economic problems that cried out for solution. Not so, Gilbert tells us: if it had not been for his depressive episode, Coolidge might have been nearly as progressive and proactive as Woodrow Wilson or F.D.R. He was not a villain, but a victim of his own personality and a family tragedy — as the song used to say, more to be pitied than censured.

Gilbert’s thesis will inevitably provoke discussion, coming as it does from an expert. The strengths and weaknesses of political leaders under stress are an inexhaustibly fascinating topic. Readers of Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America may recall that Goodwin entertained similar thoughts about Lyndon Johnson’s sanity — in that case, paranoia rather than depression. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment (presidential death and disability) is not mentioned here, but there can be no doubt that Gilbert would consider a situation like Coolidge’s an appropriate occasion to invoke it.

The Tormented President argues its case vigorously, in a manner more like a prosecutor’s brief than a historian’s discussion. Evidence that argues for Coolidge’s essential normality in the last four years of his presidency is soft-pedaled or omitted; evidence capable of more than one interpretation is pressed into service on one side or the other. For example, in his first year as president Coolidge told reporters at one of his weekly press conferences:

I sometimes sit here at my desk and wish that I had the information at my command that is represented by you men…and that brings me to the suggestion that if any of you think of the right man for the secretaryship of the Navy, and I am perfectly serious about this though it may seem offhand and a little unusual, I would be very grateful to you if you will drop me a line or give the name to Mr. Slemp.

This unorthodox suggestion, which Gilbert presents as an innovative way to cultivate the press, would undoubtedly have been characterized, if it had occurred after young Calvin’s death, as evidence of presidential “disengagement” and flight from executive responsibility.

And on the matter of press conferences generally, the book praises Coolidge’s forthright dialogue with the press and the popularity it created for him in his first year as president. It somehow does not mention that the conferences continued weekly to the end of his presidency and that Coolidge remained popular with reporters.

The really startling feature of Gilbert’s thesis is that it describes a radical change in behavior by one of the most visible public figures of the 1920s — and that this supposed change escaped the notice of every contemporary observer, friendly or hostile. Senator Hiram Johnson of California, a political enemy of Coolidge who ran against him for the nomination in 1924 and harbored deep suspicions of his policies, saw the President periodically when invited to the White House and always described him the same way, as a deeply partisan, scheming politician. Harlan Stone, his Attorney General and Supreme Court appointee, did not see him at the end of his term as an exhausted man, but expressed the hope Coolidge would return to Washington as Senator from Massachusetts. Gilbert, recognizing this inconvenient fact, argues that “the concept of clinical depression was less well understood in the 1920s” and that Coolidge’s depression was concealed by an already grim personality. (One thinks of Dorothy Parker’s line, “How could they tell?”)

But this was a man with thousands of eyes on him — reporters in need of copy, politicians and lobbyists in need of advantage, and sharp-eyed Washington gossips in general. At the time he left office, he was very popular and considered highly successful. Although historians are adjured not to trust negative evidence, the absence of comment makes one uncomfortable.

Though no expert on the politics of the 1920s, I have published on Coolidge’s personality, and one or two assertions in Gilbert’s final chapter, “Grief and Depression,” also strain my comfort level. One is the counterintuitive assertion that Coolidge had a tendency “to boast, brag, and embellish” — a characteristic not to be expected from a figure known as “Silent Cal.” All the evidence given in the book to support this contention comes from statements made to his father, John Coolidge. There is no doubt that Calvin Coolidge had an exaggerated respect, bordering on fear, for his father, and was continually trying to placate him by stressing his accomplishments. He believed, as he said in his autobiography, that his father had lavished “tenderness and care” on him “in the hope that I might rise to a position of importance.” Naturally he was quick to inform his father of all his successes, as a sign of gratitude. I discussed this behavior pattern at length in an essay called “Calvin Coolidge and the Zen of Politics”; boastfulness is hardly the word for it.

The same chapter marshals a good deal of evidence to show that Coolidge delighted in the trappings and prerogatives of the presidential office, and suggests that he interpreted young Calvin’s death as God’s punishment for his vaingloriousness. The evidence presented is impressive (and corrects my misstatement on the subject in “Coolidge and the Zen of Politics” ), but it is undated, and seems to come from both the beginning and the end of his presidency. If Coolidge was convinced that God’s anger at his attitude demanded the infliction of this sacrifice, does it make sense to suppose that he would have continued his behavior without change even after his son’s death?

There is no doubt at all that Calvin, Jr.’s death affected his father deeply and plunged him into a period of depression. How long the period lasted and how widespread its effects were are subjects for careful investigation. We should be grateful to Robert Gilbert for posing these questions in an interesting, provocative book.