This past week has been Bee Week, as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee buzzed its final rounds. (Of course, the term “bee” has nothing to do with the insect even if the logo of the National Spelling Bee prominently features one, but rather is an old and somewhat obscure term referring to a communal gathering. Can’t resist the occasional bee pun here, though). And the 2012 winner is… Snigdha Nandipati, from San Diego, who successfully tackled such words as “luteovirescent” or “saccharolytic” that I’m not even sure I have typed correctly. Her winning word was “guetapens.” Congratulations to her and the other finalists! BTW, here’s an interesting blog post on why Indian Americans are so successful at spelling bees.
While spelling bees had been held in many communities since well before 1825, when the term “spelling bee” first appeared in print, 1925 saw the first national spelling bee, which one Frank Neuhauser, 11 years old at the time, won over eight other finalists by correctly spelling “gladiolus.” For his orthographic wizardry, he was awarded $ 500 in gold, a bicycle, and (best of all, from my vantage point) a trip to the White House to meet president Calvin Coolidge, along with the other finalists.
Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all who stumble onto this blog (or perhaps are even regular readers). My resolution for the new year is to blog more regularly 🙂
“Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.” (Calvin Coolidge)
Strolling and scrolling through Ebay on the lookout for Coolidge items, I found the following photo that perhaps accompanied a 1929 newspaper article about Coolidge adjusting (for the first time in some 30 years) to life outside of politics. The former president is indeed sitting somewhat morosely at his desk in the law office of Coolidge & Hemenway in Northampton, looking more “weaned on a pickle” than ever. Ralph W. Hemenway ceded him the office he had used in the president’s absence, as he himself moved to a less comfortable one.
I don’t think Coolidge regretted leaving the White House, and he certainly was among the least pretentious of presidents, but it must have been something of a letdown to be back in his old office.While he began to make some good money with his contract for a daily newspaper column, Coolidge, who never had been a rich man, remained modest and frugal in his lifestyle after returning to private life in 1929.
Calvin Coolidge in 1929 (date unspecified)
“I am for economy. After that I am for more economy.”
(Calvin Coolidge, 1924)
Quoted in Frederick C. Mosher, A Tale of Two Agencies, Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
Coolidge was hardly alone in his dedication to economy, as well as efficiency and integrity in government. Hard as it may be to believe today, when nearly everyone seems to have a stake in keeping government spending up, a majority of Americans in the 1920s supported efforts to bring down spending.
Update: with a tip of the hat to the folks at the SilentCal blog, it looks like Rapid City will soon be installing a marker to commemorate Coolidge’s historic and unique statement about “not choosing” to run in 1928, a statement he made while vacationing in South Dakota.
Rapid City, SD – not too distant from Mt. Rushmore (where Coolidge is not enshrined, much to my chagrin; but at least he spoke at the beginning of the work there in 1927), has been completing an ambitious project in its historical district: to honor each president of the U.S. with his own statue. South Dakota artist John Lopez created the statue of Calvin Coolidge, who appears to wave his big Stetson hat in a gesture of welcome to Rapid City visitors. Now if that doesn’t pull the throngs to Rapid City, I don’t know what will. And Calvin Coolidge would certainly appreciate that no government funds were spent on this project, as each statue has been privately funded.
Calvin Coolidge statue in Rapid City, SD - corner of 5th and Main Streets
Calvin Coolidge was pretty media-savvy for his time, using radio (the most pervasive mass medium of the era) more extensively than any president before him, and appearing on film. I have no idea what he’d make of the vast new possibilities, but I have a hunch if he were an active politician today, he’d certainly be using Twitter feeds and have a Facebook page, at the very minimum.
He’d also be using technology for information, and I feel he’d find the excellent podcasts by Russ Roberts a great source of information. Amity Shlaes has, for instance, been a guest, and writers and thinkers of various kinds share their wisdom.
So, if anyone out there is actually reading my occasional musings here, I hope you’ll check out the excellent podcasts that are part of the Library of Economics and Liberty.
Today I saw the movie “Moon”, a riveting sci-fi yarn that is basically one actor’s showpiece – Sam Rockwell carries the full weight of the story, and he does it brilliantly. By all means go and see it…and I promise not to give away anything crucial here. Much as I loved the film, I was put off by the tired cliché of corporate evildoers being predictably cast as villains. To me, the villainy of the corporation was the weak link in the story. Without giving away the twist, it seemed extremely far-fetched to me that a publicly traded company (and we’re not talking about a too-distant future here) would feel the need to resort to the trickery the plot called for…let alone get away with it for any length of time. Indeed, that same question is asked in the film “But why? Why would they do this?”. And maybe it’s my pro-market bias taking over, but I felt the answer (quotes are from memory) “Because they’re a corporation! They have investors, shareholders… ” was a bit lacking, though no doubt many will find it sufficient.
Yes, companies are made up of people. And yes, people make mistakes. And also yes, companies have at times engaged in questionable tactics. But I think it is wrong and misleading to characterize corporations as inherently evil, as Hollywood has been doing for much of the past couple of decades. This distorted image of corporations is seeping insidiously into the public mindset. And where is Calvin Coolidge in all this? It may be said that his presidency was the last that had an unrestricted pro-business tilt, as per his famous quote, “The business of America is business”. In effect, he and his predecessor Harding ran the country in the Gilded Age manner of a Cleveland, McKinley, or Taft, steering it rightward away from the trustbusting progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who -like Hollywood producers of today- liked to cast businessmen as villains.
To get back to the movie, I really feel a much more likely candidate for villain would have been the government, in the guise of some department or agency. Go see the movie, and ask yourself if a big, unaccountable and all-powerful government agency wouldn’t be much more likely to be the agent of evil. But I suppose that would be too avant-garde for the Hollywood of today.
There’s an excellent lecture (split in 8 separate youtube videos) by noted Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, from the Hauenstein lecture series. They’re not new, but if you’re interested in Coolidge and haven’t seen them, check them out.
Writing in forbes.com, Virginia Postrel offers insightful comment on the glamour factor in politics. One central point is that glamour is an ephemeral, psychological entity, that tends to evaporate when conflated with the down-and-dirty realities of political decision-making. And indeed, one of the reasons of the mystique that is still linked to the Kennedy name is due to the untimely deaths of JFK and RFK, and the dreams of what might have been.
Devoted as this blog is to that contender for the top spot on the “least glamorous presidents of the 20th century” list, Calvin Coolidge, I wonder how healthy the American obsession with glamour in politics really is. Since the 1930s, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the executive power amassed by increasingly “imperial” presidents. While few were as glamorous as JFK, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama, one wonders if the public adoration of glamorous change agents does not add to the unhealthy inflationary effect the powerful office has on their self-esteem. Glamour inspires yearning, and the Constitution never intended for the people to invest their hopes, dreams and desires in the person of the president. A glamorous figure will find it harder to acknowledge that he is “not a great man”, carried on a wave of adulation to carry out grand schemes.
Postrel may be right in stating (regretting?) that full disclosure and widespread cynicism act as an antidote, yet this writer feels that the American republic would be better served by unglamorous public servants who, in Coolidge’s words, “do the day’s work” without having to satisfy the public’s need for glamour. That is better left to rock stars and actors.
Gene Healy has an interesting column at the Examiner, arguing that the time of big government programs is over.