the Real Coolidge

Good morning. It’s Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. On this date in U.S. history, the presidency passed in the middle of the night to Calvin Coolidge as he slept in his family’s Vermont farmhouse while on summer vacation. Coolidge’s father had eschewed getting a telephone even after his son had become vice president, but as Warren G. Harding drew his last breaths in a San Francisco hotel room, a telegram was sent across the country. It was hand-delivered to the Coolidge farmhouse at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 3, 1923.

“I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs, calling my name,” Coolidge recalled in his memoirs. “I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred.”

Calvin Coolidge dressed swiftly, knelt in a quick prayer, and descended the stairs with his wife, Grace — to their new lives. Coolidge had his stenographer type out the oath of office from a copy of the Constitution. By the light of a kerosene lamp, the oath was administered by his father, a notary public and justice of the peace.

When Calvin Coolidge referred to the specter of death visiting his family, he was alluding to something he knew all too well. His mother and sister had died when he was a teenager. His father had remarried a schoolteacher named Carrie Athelia Brown, and she had passed away in 1920. Personal tragedy would also follow Coolidge to Washington.

Eleven months into his presidency, his two sons, John, 18, and Calvin Jr., 16, were playing tennis on the White House courts when young Calvin developed a blister. Then, as now, such a lesion could become infected. But with no antibiotics at that time, even small wounds could be deadly if the infection spread, and this one did. This beloved boy was gone within a week.

“The power and the glory of the presidency,” Coolidge said sadly, “went with him.”

Some of Coolidge’s famously stoic demeanor stemmed from these losses, and some of it was due to his Yankee upbringing. Coolidge also adhered to an early 20th century sensibility that using words sparingly could be an effective tool of leadership.

Alice Roosevelt may have gotten laughs by saying that Coolidge looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle.” And there’s that oft-told, and probably apocryphal, yarn of the White House dinner guest who gushed to the president that she had wagered she could get him to say more than two words to her — only to be told icily, “You lose.”

But even if most people don’t see it, there was always a joke hidden within the joke: You see, in that story, the supposedly anti-social Coolidge was hosting a dinner party. This was something Calvin and Grace Coolidge did quite often. His wife was outgoing, and the taciturn president enjoyed the company of people, even if he wasn’t much for small talk.

Even this was only half the story. Calvin Coolidge was a very public presence as chief executive. In 67 months the White House, he held 520 press conferences. He was the first president to appear in a talking film, and he was a cameraman’s dream. He liked being photographed and didn’t mind posing in farmer’s overalls, Indian headdresses, or even cowboy hats and chaps.

The public seemed to appreciate his dry Yankee wit, and admired his decision not to run for reelection in 1928. Today, Calvin Coolidge is remembered mainly for something he didn’t really say. The (mis)quoted Coolidge line is usually rendered as: “The business of America is business.”

This is employed, usually by Democrats, to impeach the supposedly mindless Republican embrace of the bottom line. These Coolidge critics are cribbing from a 1925 speech Coolidge delivered to newspaper editors at the National Press Club in which used the phrase, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.”

But Coolidge was building to a larger point — the opposite point, really.

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he added. “We want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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