July 4th marks the 141st birthday of Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30th president, and still the only chief executive to have been born on the national holiday. We remember and honor him on this day for his lifetime of service, for his quiet certitude, rectitude and civility, and for a presidential record of unprecedented prosperity and peace. The United States has changed much since Coolidge’s day, but while he surely would be aghast at many of these changes, his belief in the foundational principles of the Republic would be firm and unchanged. Happy Birthday, Calvin Coolidge!
…or your reputation, at any rate. Amity Shlaes and George Nash have done some research into whether or not Calvin Coolidge really made the upbeat remarks about the soundness of the 1928 stock market that Herbert Hoover attributes to him in his memoirs, and which John Kenneth Galbraith requoted to lay the blame for the 1929 crash at the feet of Coolidge.Turns out he very likely didn’t make that statement – which goes some way towards absolving him, although at the same time it proves wrong Coolidge’s own aphorism that he “never had been hurt by anything he didn’t say.”
June 20 marks the anniversary of the Geneva Naval Conference of 1927, a major arms control effort of the Coolidge administration.
The United States and Great Britain, allies in World War I, were now basically rivals in the field of naval armament – and the naval balance of power was approximately equivalent in importance to the nuclear balance of power half a century later. Great Britain still possessed the world’s biggest and most potent navy, and, while much diminished by the strains of the Great War, it also was the chief economic and financial rival of the U.S.
Irving Berlin’s hit song, “See you in C-U-B-A,” popular in the 1920s, touted the “lively atmosphere” on the largest Caribbean island, exhorting would-be revelers to escape the land of Prohibition and to “travel with us on a train or a bus to Miami where we can begin to plan a wonderful trip on a plane or a ship that’ll take us from Florida to Havana – see you in C-U-B-A!” President Coolidge took that advice, but with a different purpose in mind.
On his only foreign visit, Calvin Coolidge went to Havana in early 1928 to address the Sixth Pan American Conference there. Coolidge and his delegation, which included Secretaries Kellogg and Wilbur, former Secretary Hughes and Ambassador Morrow as well as journalist/writer H.L. Mencken and humorist Will Rogers, had left Washington by rail (the “Coolidge Special”) on January 13 for Key West (not Miami!) and, having departed there on the battleship (and flagship of the U.S. Navy) U.S.S.Texas early on January 15, arrived at Havana on the afternoon of that same day. Along with hosting Cuban president Gerardo Machado, a large and enthusiastic crowd welcomed him there, celebrating the fact that his visit marked the first time a sitting U.S. president had put his foot not only on the soil of Cuba, but of any foreign nation on the American continent. Coolidge’s address on the occasion of the opening of the conference on January 16 also marked the first time that a U.S. president had thus spoken to a non-U.S. audience.
Thanks to Jim Cooke, who not only is as knowledgeable a source on all things Coolidge as they come but also does an exceptional job (so they tell me) of impersonating the 30th president, I’m upgrading this post from a “random Coolidge pic.” Jim confirmed my hunch that the straw-hatted gentleman on the left is Col. Edmund Starling who headed Coolidge’s Secret Service detail. Starling, who had previously served presidents Wilson and Harding was retained by Coolidge in a manner he reports in his memoir “Starling of the White House” as follows:
(Following his return from the burial of president Harding at Marion, Ohio, Starling) “was completely exhausted and did not report for duty for another day. Then, at a quarter of six in the morning, I went to the Willard Hotel and waited outside the President’s suite on the third floor. I had heard that he was an early riser. At a quarter after six the door opened, and he stepped out, dressed to go for a walk. He recognized me and said: “Good morning, Colonel Starling, I’ve been wanting to see you. I want you to stay with me during my administration.” (…) “I will be most happy to remain with you,” I said. “I will consider it an honor to serve you in any way.”
Starling regularly accompanied the president on his morning walks. He was distressed to find Coolidge took no other exercise, and found his posture wanting:
Moreover, he walked with his head thrust forward, his hands clasped behind him, his shoulders hunched, and his chest sagging. I finally got up enough courage to tell him that since he walked for a healthful purpose he should not defeat that purpose by his posture. “It will do you so much more good,” I said, “if you will keep your head up and your shoulders back, with your arms swinging. The important thing is to stimulate circulation in the chest.” He paid no attention to me, and for a week continued to walk as before. Then one day he suddenly struck out with his head stuck up in the air and his arms flailing, so that I had to walk at least three feet from him, I said nothing. After a while his arms fell into a normal swing. He never walked again with them behind him.
So I suppose what we are seeing here is Coolidge after accepting the Starling regimen. At least the president doesn’t seem to be flailing, although Starling keeps a safe distance.
Picture courtesy of the Library of Congress digital photography collection.
Posing with groups of visitors to the White House was something president Coolidge did often and well. Browsing the Library of Congress online photo archives the other day, I came upon a number of pictures that were new to me and that serve to illustrate the variety of such visitors. All of the images are from the period of May/June 1926.
My favorite, though perhaps not the president’s (that prop sword looks a little threatening…): Continue reading