The Presidency in the Popular Imagination

National Council for History Education Conference, October 18-20, 2001 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.


Sheldon Stern, historian emeritus, The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, MA. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and was historian at the JFK Library for more than 20 years. He directed the American History Project for High School Students from 1993-2000.

Jim Cooke is the solo historical interpreter of Calvin Coolidge. His research of over 25 years has encouraged the Coolidge Foundation to find a way to “copyright” him. Not only has Cooke appeared at special events at President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth, Vermont, but he tours the nation as Coolidge. He was instrumental in planning the 1998 conference on Coolidge at the J.F.K. Library in Boston, MA.

Susan Pollender teaches at Black River High School in Ludlow, Vermont. She has taught Social Studies and History there since 1968. A graduate of the University of Vermont, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the Coolidge Foundation and the Black River Academy Museum.

Holman D. Jordan, Jr. is Emeritus Professor of History, Castleton State College, Castleton, Vermont. His Ph.D. is from the University of Alabama and he has taught at Castleton since 1965. Among his many projects is the Project Rescue, The History of Lake Bomoseen, where students found, recorded, copied and preserved documents, photographs, and memories of the lake as a resort from 1870-1970. The result was a published, pictorial history of the lake. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Coolidge Foundation and the Vermont Council for the Humanities.

Donald E. Harpster is Chair, Arts and Sciences Division, College of St. Joseph, Rutland, Vermont. He received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He has written and lectured on many presidential and Vermont topics. His article “The Religion of Calvin Coolidge: From Rural Vermont to the White House” was published by the Coolidge Foundation in 2000 for its series of research monographs, The Real Calvin Coolidge.

Cynthia D. Bittinger is Executive Director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation where she has served for over 12 years. She has also taught Vermont History and Women in U.S. History for the Community College of Vermont for over eight years. Her article on First Lady Grace Coolidge is part of American First Ladies, an encyclopedia and reference book from Salem Press being published this month.

“Even by the negligible standards of American presidents—and arguably there hasn’t been a truly cultured chief executive since Calvin Coolidge, who famously translated Dante’s Inferno as a wedding gift to his bride—number 43 is a standout.”
Talk Magazine, October, 2001, “Capitol Games” by Lloyd Grove

Textbook entry for a next textbook published by Prentice Hall, America: Pathways to the Present, Chapter 21, Section I, Page 601:

“Laissez Faire In one sentence, Coolidge summed up a major theme of the Republican decade: “The business of the American people is business.” The best that the government could do, he believed, was not to interfere with the growth of business. This laissez-faire business policy helped fuel the tremendous economic boom of the 1920’s. As part of his laissez-faire policy, Coolidge tried to make the federal government smaller. For example, when war veterans won a bonus payment from Congress, he vetoed the bill on the grounds that the government could not afford it. (Congress overrode his veto in 1924.)

Coolidge’s effort to have government do less drew criticism from those who saw it as a failure to take action. The noted newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann said: “Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity, which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly.”—Columnist Walter Lippmann, 1926”

Sheldon Stern, 1998, “William Allen White and the Origins of the Coolidge Stereotype” noted that characterizations like the above textbook and Lippmann quote reminded him “of a famous character in literature not politics—Ebenezer Scrooge!”

Richard Norton Smith, 1998, “Calvin, We Hardly Knew Ye Keynote Address” also looked for the origins of the Coolidge legend. “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 soldier’s 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.