Anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s passing


Calvin Coolidge, by reputation the quietest of presidents, quietly passed away on January 5, 1933 – 80 years ago this Saturday. In last year’s post on this date, I quoted one of his biographers on the events of that morning. The following quote is how Mrs. Coolidge’s biographer tells it:

Mrs. Coolidge returned from her morning’s shopping shortly after noon on January 5, 1933. The Beeches [the Coolidge’s house in Northampton] was coated in ice. The trees were gaunt with winter hoar. She went upstairs to summon her husband for lunch and found that he was dead. He lay on his back in his shirt sleeves in his dressing-room and his face had a peaceful expression. She knelt beside him and saw at once that he was gone. She ran down to the landing and called to Harry Ross, Mr. Coolidge’s secretary: “My husband is dead.”  […]

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Presidential reading matter(s)

It was recently revealed which books president Obama intended to read while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard (and for the record, I’m not going to join in the chorus of pundits that pounced on him for taking a break in these troubled times – first, because the Presidency is indeed a tough job and Calvin Coolidge also took regular and fairly lengthy breaks, and second, because to me, this particular president is less harmful when vacationing than when he’s on the job). As the article mentions, other recent presidents (and current candidates) have similarlyhad their reading matter publicized, although at least to me it is unclear whether these lists truly represent what the president reads and wants to read, or whether they are merely for show. In any event, they represent another set of tea leaves to read in order to get a glimpse into the man’s interests and passions.

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Coolidge on big vs. small decisions

In an article for The American Review of Reviews, Bruce Barton quotes Calvin Coolidge reflecting on the 1919 Boston police strike:

“People think that a big decision like that is difficult. It isn’t. Big decisions are easy, because you can see so clearly what ought to be done. It’s the small decisions that make troubles, where there is so much right on both sides.”

A Coolidge quote

In his 1920 Woman’s Home Companion piece on Coolidge (“A man with vision – but not a visionary”), Bruce Barton quotes from a speech Coolidge gave Feb. 4, 1916 to the  Amherst alumni association; the full text can be found in the compilation volume “Have Faith In Massachusetts“. Notwithstanding the somewhat antiquated style, the meaning of Coolidge’s words is still true today:

„As a result of criticizing these conditions (the distribution of wealth), there has grown up a too-well-developed public opinion along two lines; one, that the men engaged in great affairs are selfish and greedy and not to be trusted, that business activity is not moral and the whole system is to be condemned, and the other, that work is a curse to man, and that working hours ought to be as short as possible, or in some way abolished.“

As we have seen, the Coolidge presidency came at (or possibly even past) the end of an era where businessmen were lionized and admired and the work ethic was held in high esteem. The progressive element in the arts and in politics had already been challenging and attacking these values for several decades. A distrust of business and wealth is pervasive to this day. As for the value of work, only today are the social sciences beginning to find that work is essential to human well-being. Of course we need to recognize that in Coolidge’s day, “work” still meant mostly hard, physical toil that can hardly be compared to today’s workplace conditions.

Creating the Coolidge image

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Advertising genius Bruce Barton

Calvin Coolidge’s rise in politics was remarkably straight and, at times, seemed almost miraculous. While some of this was due to being in the right place at the right time, being astute, reaching out across the aisle, and “doing the day’s work”, Coolidge also was fortunate in having the backing of men (and politics in those days was handled by men) who saw great promise in him and furthered his career.  One group of men might be described as Coolidge’s “Amherst network”. Best known among these men is Frank Stearns, who championed Coolidge and never tired of promoting him, while Dwight Morrow is another.

It was Morrow who first contacted another fellow Amherst graduate, advertising man Bruce Barton, to help “groom” their man Coolidge for the 1920 Republican nomination. When Barton first met Coolidge, he had only recently founded the advertising agency of Barton, Durstine, and Osborn that soon became one of the largest in the country (the agency lives on today as part of the giant Omnicom group). Much as Stearns and Morrow, Barton quickly saw the potential in Coolidge. As part of a small circle of informal advisers, he felt it would be the best strategy for Coolidge not to appear too ambitious, but rather keep focussing on his duties while his supporters worked behind the scenes for his nomination. It was Barton who drafted the first national magazine article on the Massachusetts governor (for Collier’s) in November of 1919. As Kerry Buckley states in the excellent article upon which much of this blog entry is based (“A President for the “Great Silent Majority”: Bruce Barton’s construction of Calvin Coolidge, The New England Quarterly, Dec. 2003),  it was Barton who conceived of the idea of presenting Coolidge as a unique personality with which Americans would easily identify, not in the sense of creating a persona that was at odds with the real person, but in the sense of underscoring those traits and attributes that created a unified, symbolic personality while de-emphasizing other aspects of Coolidge’s personality.

In words that pre-date the 1968 election campaign by almost 60 years, Barton wrote  “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority has no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: he lives like them, he works with them, and he understands.” Barton also prompted Coolidge (via Stearns) to reach out to the millions of newly enfranchised women, who were about to vote for the first time in a presidential election. The result was a full-page editorial “Message to Women” that appeared in the Woman’s Home Companion.  He assured Coolidge that his interest was more than professional. “It is a real satisfaction,” he confided, “to try to write where one can feel a real conviction.” Coolidge was grateful. “You were able to do so much more,” he wrote, “than I had any idea was possible.”

While the drive the secure Coolidge the Republican nomination fizzled (a deadlocked convention resulted in “smoke-filled room” dealing that handed the nomination to Sen. Warren G. Harding), it may reasonably be assumed that the assiduous public relations work by Barton and Stearns was instrumental in making the revolt against the similarly proposed vice-presidential nominee Lenroot possible. In an unprecedented rejection of senatorial management of the nomination process, the delegates nominated Coolidge instead. It certainly was no coincidence that the Oregon delegate who put Coolidge’s name up for nomination had previously received not one but three copies of Have Faith in Massachusetts.

After the Harding/Coolidge ticket won the presidency, Barton occasionally wrote speeches for the vice president. The, after the death of Harding, Barton became the principal architect of the image Americans had of their president. It was he who argued for the extensive use of radio as a medium to reach voters, a medium that was rapidly consigning old-style oratory and old-style campaigning to the dustbin of history. Barton enthused “we will build a wonderful Coolidge legend in the country.” At the same time he was not above using negative advertising: with the 1924 election turning into a three-way race between Coolidge, Democratic candidate John W. Davis, and Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette, he painted the scenario of the election being thrown into the House of Representatives, and to combat LaFollette, the red scare was effectively revived.

Barton remained an inofficial adviser to president Coolidge, continued to write articles about him even after his term in office had ended, and, fittingly, delivered a eulogy on national radio after the president’s death in 1933 that included the words

“I shall say something about him that I doubt you have ever heard any man say: I loved him. There was a very lovable side to Calvin Coolidge. He was unique.”