Reagan on Coolidge 2:The sequel

As a little addendum to my recent post on Ronald Reagan and his esteem of Calvin Coolidge, here’s one further bit of Reagan on Coolidge – this one from the wonderful book “Reagan: A Life in Letters” :

During the holiday season of 1984, a Vermont correspondent had sent the just-re-elected Reagan a copy of Calvin Coolidge’s Christmas Greeting of 1927, which read

“To the American People: 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.”

Reagan, as was his wont, wrote personally on January 29, 1985 as follows:

Thank you very much for sending me the copy of Calvin Coolidge’s Christmas Greeting of 1927. I’m delighted to have it. I happen to be an admirer of “Silent Cal” and believe he has been badly treated by history. I’ve done considerable reading and researching of his presidency. He served this country very well and accomplished much before speaking the words, “I do not choose to run.” Again, my thanks. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.

The presidency has changed immeasurably, and not for the better, between the days of Coolidge and those of Reagan. And Calvin Coolidge would have been flabbergasted at the extent and grandeur of the imperial presidency of today. But I still think it is interesting that the 40th president thought so highly of the 30th, who had for over fifty years been the subject of ridicule if not contempt by liberal historians. Quite a reversal, also, for Reagan who as a young man had been an ardent admirer of FDR – the very antithesis of Coolidge in so many ways.

Reagan on Coolidge

Ronald Reagan was way ahead of the curve when it came to appreciating the virtues of Calvin Coolidge. As is well known, upon assuming the presidency, he had Coolidge’s official White House portrait taken out of storage and placed in the cabinet room. And as early as 1976, the year of his first serious presidential bid, he sang the praises of the 30th president in one of his regular radio addresses. I’m posting the full script of here (taken from the book “Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision – Selected Writings“) (note: I say “script” because in the book, Reagan’s text is presented as a working draft, with changes and re-writes clearly shown. The following is what appears as the final script):

The names of some Presidents are invoked by spokesmen of both political parties as “men for all seasons”, epitomizing the greatness of America, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson etc. Then there are Presidents whose names are brought in party circles, hailed as great but, if acknowledged by the other party at all,with not quite the same enthusiasm.

There are also two lists of Presidential names – one for each party, usually held up to view for strictly partisan purposes. Each party lists past Presidents of the opposing party as examples of that party’s terrible record.

The Democrats for example get laughs by mentioning Silent Cal Coolidge. And truth is mayn Republicans chuckle a little and go along with the idea that he was a do nothing President. Sometimes I wonder if he really was a “do nothing” or was he a little like a Life Guard on the beach who also seems to be doing very little when there is no emergency. If you take a closer look he is quietly being watchful.

Cal Coolidge is good for laughs but not all of them are at his expense. There was the press conference where a persistent reporter asked the President if he had anything to say about prohibition? Cal said “No.” “Any comments on the world court?” – “No.” – “What about the farm situation?” Again the answer was no. The reporter said, “You don’t seem to have any comment about anything.” Coolidge said, “No comment and don’t quote me.”

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Coolidgean humor

Calvin Coolidge met the White House press twice weekly, and revealed an uncharacteristically talkative side of his personality in those conferences. Of course, press conferences of the 1920s in no way resembled the ones contemporary presidents hold. For one thing, the number of reporters attending was much smaller then, perhaps no more than a dozen at any given session. For another, these were of course newspaper reporters; no microphones were allowed, and those intrusive television cameras had not yet been invented. Also, questions were handed in in advance, and the president decided which ones to answer. Most importantly, correspondents were not allowed to directly quote the president or attribute verbatim statements to him. Accordingly, newspapers of the period reveal little of what Coolidge said; the convention was to quote a “White House spokesman”.

From official transcripts of these sessions, historian Robert Ferrell has compiled a book aptly titled The Talkative President. Besides extensive, and usually well-informed and well-reasoned presidential statements on domestic and international matters great and small, the book contains a generous sampling of the wry Coolidge wit. This blog will return to this well of material in the future, but here is one little exchange from the time of the 1924 election:

PRESS: Mr. President, what are the reports from Minnesota? I understand the latest report is that the Republicans are going to carry Minesota?

PRESIDENT: I haven’t any specific reports about any states. My reports indicate that I shall probably carry Northampton*. That is about as far as I can go into details. That is based more on experience.

*Northampton, MA was Coolidge’s longtime city of residence. He also served as mayor.

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.”

Mencken on Coolidge, v2.0

H.L. Mencken made some typically caustic remarks about Calvin Coolidge (as he did about nearly every president during his lifetime), some of which have been widely quoted to support the overall negative image of the 30th president promulgated by liberal historians.

However, Mencken came to reconsider Coolidge, as witness this quote made after Coolidge died in 1933:

“Should the day ever dawn when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well be that Cal’s bones, now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.”

Lecture on Coolidge

Presidential scholar Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, delivering a lecture on Calvin Coolidge at the Hauenstein center (courtesy of youtube, and with a tip of the hat to Emmett R. Smith )

part 1:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7sDOZIOqkA&feature=related

part 2:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3J8V3nMb7A&feature=related

part 3:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qgTrD1ploY&feature=related

part 4:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxuE4YogaPM&feature=related

part 5:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ50LbFs1VU&feature=related

part 6:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CXwXDHlpDw&feature=related

part 7:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFCG-W8iSYQ&feature=related

part 8:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MGiLnrtoZg&feature=related