Meese on Coolidge

Edwin Meese in his Heritage Foundation office, 2005

Edwin Meese in his Heritage Foundation office, 2005

The Honorable Edwin Meese III, who served as Counsellor to president Ronald Reagan, as well as the 75th U.S. Attorney General, contributed a keynote address to the 14th Annual Student Symposium of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in April 1983. His subject was “Shaping the Presidency: Parties, Personalities and Press”, of which I include the segment on Calvin Coolidge. It’s a fairly long piece, but a nice example of one of the stalwarts of the Reagan Revolution extolling the virtues of Coolidge.

Setting the historical context, Meese states that during the 1920s,

“the Presidency was beginning to assume a far greater place in the American consciousness. Its occupant was becoming a fixed part of daily lives. As communications expanded, his picture and words were disseminated widely. It was ironic, then, that the first President to preside during a period of mass communication was the man dubbed “Silent Cal” by reporters who had tried to coax more than a line or two out of him. President Coolidge answered them by saying: “I never got in trouble for something I didn’t say.”

“Coolidge has been somewhat maligned by historians – unfairly I think, and I don’t say that just because his picture now hangs in the Cabinet Room in the White House, but it is true that he liked to sleep 11 hours a day, and that he refused to work beyond 4 o’clock in the afternoon. As he put it, “If a man can’t finish his job by then, he’s not too smart.” As one who has had some experience in waking up Presidents [Meese is referring here to his decision to not wake up the vacationing president Reagan when U.S. Navy fighter jets engaged and downed Libyan jets], I can assure you that I could have some understanding for President Coolidge, but it is a matter of historical fact that except in wartime, the Presidency, for most of our early history on into at least the early 1900’s, seldom required the long working days that we now associate with the Chief Executive. The reason might be apparent when we remember that Congress during those days was in session only a small portion of the year.

But it wasn’t slumber that was the primary function of Coolidge’s Washington, but rather normalcy. He was one of the Presidents who served during a period of time in which the business of government went forward and progress was made and not a great deal of controversy was really generated. During this period of time, this is mostly forgotten by historians, Coolidge did manage to cut taxes; he pared the Federal budget; he was even so parsimonious that he dropped the twenty-one gun salutes that were customarily fired whenever the Presidential yacht passed Mount Vernon because he said they cost too much money. He encouraged private investment, and it was a time in which he and his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, (this was the days before the Department of Transportation) took great credit for the thousands of miles of highways which were built throughout the country; for 800,000 new homes built every year without any assistance from Washington; and for a prosperity that lasted throughout his term, but unfortunately didn’t last throughout the term of Mr. Hoover who succeeded him.

Well, these were some of the things that occurred during that period of normalcy. Near the end of his term, President Coolidge revealed that one of his greatest accomplishments, he said, had been minding his own business. And frankly, I think this is something, rather good advice, a good theory of government, that might be useful at almost any time in our history as a counterweight to the red tape and red ink that has too often characterized activist government.”

On the subject of Coolidge’s dealings with the press, Meese relates:

“Coolidge’s shrewdness, as I mentioned earlier, extended to those dealings with the news media. […] The Press Corps itself was very small in the 1920’s. No more than half a dozen correspondents covered the White House in those days. […] Coolidge was […] guarded on sensitive material. However, when the subject was noncontroversial, reporters found that Calvin Coolidge, contrary to his reputation as “Silent Cal,” could be as garrulous as a filibustering Senator. Moreover, and this might surprise you, Coolidge had the largest number of press conferences per month, of any American President. And yet before he left office, the taciturn Vermonter gave his successors some advice which explained why he had been known as being so silent, advice that any president might well want to carve over the door to the West Wing. He told Herbert Hoover nine out of the ten people who come to see you will want something they ought not to have and if you ever respond to their torrent of words with even as much as a smile it only encourages them. So if you say nothing they eventually run down of their own accord. So, in this case, silence served him well. Calvin Coolidge illustrates that a president’s relations with his party or with the media, whether good or bad, fruitful or barren, are the expressions primarily of the personality of the President.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s