A president retires

Recently, former president Jimmy Carter expressed the opinion that his conduct of his post-presidential years was “probably superior” to that of other retired presidents, while George W. Bush declined an invitation to attend the ground zero commemoration, among other reasons, out of a desire to stay out of the spotlight.

There just is no job description for former presidents; we have no particular, prescribed role for these leaders who have served their country. Only a few have chosen to seek and fill other political roles – John Quincy Adams served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives, William Howard Taft fulfilled his dream of becoming Chief Justice.

A description has been offered that our political system assigns any former president the role of “public man despite himself.” For no one of that select group is that more apt than for Calvin Coolidge. Returning home to Northampton by train on March 4, 1929 straightaway from the Hoover inauguration, the Coolidges hoped to return to a quiet life and private existence after many years of public service. But Coolidge was too well remembered, too well admired too much respected, for his fellow Americans to leave him alone – he was pestered on his front porch, accosted in the street, and pursued in his office. Coolidge complained to Ralph Hemenway, his law partner from earlier days,

“Did you ever stop to think what a task it is to speak to every person you see on the streets? It is nice to say good morning to several persons, and to shake hands with them; but it is hard to say good morning to several hundred, and to shake hands with each one of them.”

This happened all the time, whether the former president was at home in Northampton, vacationing in his boyhood home in Vermont, or attending to business affairs in Boston or New York, he always had to contend with an admiring throng showering him with an attention he neither wanted nor sought.

Coolidge did not make any lengthy trips during his retirement years; in a 1932 interview he said that

“If I travel, courtesy requires that I make speeches, sometimes, and there is always the danger of saying something that will cause embarrassment. I couldn’t go to Europe without accepting honors and seeing people.”

Still, he was on the go quite a bit, often to Boston, to Amherst, where he served on the Board of Trustees, and monthly to New York City, for meetings of the New York Life Insurance Company. While he appeared to enjoy these trips, he certainly did not like to be harrassed by the press, to be called upon to speak publicly, and to be subjected to the presence of substantial crowds. On one 1930 trip to the West Coast, according to the New York Times,

“…a reporter got into the [Coolidge] apartment and met the former president in his bathrobe coming from a shower. “Mr. Coolidge,” the reporter asked, “is it true that you are planning to run again for the presidency?” Mr. Coolidge told the reporter to depart at once.” (Actually, Coolidge’s exact words to the reporter were “not fit to print.”)

All in all, Coolidge did not relish the attention lavished upon him by a nation that fondly remembered him as a symbol of the prosperous and roaring 20s. He would have been perfectly happy to disappear from public view. Having looked forward to a leisurely retirement as a reward for his years of service, he was to some extent frustrated by those with an interest in keeping him in the public eye. It is possible that the demands made upon him contributed to hastening his untimely death at only 60 years of age, on January 5, 1933.

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