Torment and tragedy

Robert E. Gilbert of Northeastern University has written a book and several scientific articles on how the torment and psychological pain Calvin Coolidge experienced when his son Calvin Jr. died from blood poisoning at only 16 years of age in the Summer of 1924 fundamentally changed his behavior for the remainder of his presidency and life.

Prof. Gilbert makes the case that what he diagnoses as a major depression following the tragic event (which was not the first traumatic loss for Coolidge, as he had lost both his mother and sister while he still was a young boy) turned Coolidge from a fully engaged, diligent and active president to one who had essentially lost interest in the presidency, disassociated himself from his administration and by and large declined to provide leadership.

I will have to reserve more detailed comment until such time that I have read the book itself. I note, however, that Prof. Gilbert is not a psychologist, yet draws on psychological concepts to illustrate his diagnoses (not just of Coolidge; he has also published on the “psychological ailments” of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others). In doing so, he draws mostly on psychological literature that is decidedly vintage though venerable. I hope and intend to look at his psychological analysis of what he has also called “the dysfunctional presidency of Calvin Coolidge” in more detail and from the perspective of, perhaps, more contemporary strains of psychological research.

However, my immediate impression is that the analysis is inaccurate, even misleading. Echoing the preference of historians and social scientists for the type of activist, progressive president exemplified by either Roosevelt,  Prof. Gilbert appears to be saying, in effect, Coolidge had great promise; he was considered a progressive governor of Massachusetts and began his presidency as an active shaper of legislation, but then an episode of depression threw him off track and he became the sleepwalking,  inactive president we know from the history books.

In other words, only a depressed and disengaged individual could possibly have steered the country the way Coolidge did after 1924; it could not have been by choice, inclination or principle that Coolidge made the decisions he did; he would have acted differently if he had been in full command of his senses. I believe this assessment to be wrong. My impression from reading transcripts of his weekly press conferences, for one, does not suggest a depressed and disengaged individual. Rather, president Coolidge was guided by his interpretation of the limited constitutional function of the presidency and by his noninterventionist political philosophy.

“Torment and tragedy” will be continued.

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