Daily (all right, weekly) dose of Coolidge

11623r“Underneath and upholding political parties was, and is, the enduring principle that a true citizen of a real republic cannot exist as a segregated, unattached fragment of selfishness, but must live as a constituent part of the whole of society, in which he can secure his own welfare only as he secures the welfare of his fellow men.”

(accepting nomination for president, Aug. 14, 1924)

Torment and tragedy

Robert E. Gilbert of Northeastern University has written a book and several scientific articles on how the torment and psychological pain Calvin Coolidge experienced when his son Calvin Jr. died from blood poisoning at only 16 years of age in the Summer of 1924 fundamentally changed his behavior for the remainder of his presidency and life.

Prof. Gilbert makes the case that what he diagnoses as a major depression following the tragic event (which was not the first traumatic loss for Coolidge, as he had lost both his mother and sister while he still was a young boy) turned Coolidge from a fully engaged, diligent and active president to one who had essentially lost interest in the presidency, disassociated himself from his administration and by and large declined to provide leadership.

I will have to reserve more detailed comment until such time that I have read the book itself. I note, however, that Prof. Gilbert is not a psychologist, yet draws on psychological concepts to illustrate his diagnoses (not just of Coolidge; he has also published on the “psychological ailments” of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others). In doing so, he draws mostly on psychological literature that is decidedly vintage though venerable. I hope and intend to look at his psychological analysis of what he has also called “the dysfunctional presidency of Calvin Coolidge” in more detail and from the perspective of, perhaps, more contemporary strains of psychological research.

However, my immediate impression is that the analysis is inaccurate, even misleading. Echoing the preference of historians and social scientists for the type of activist, progressive president exemplified by either Roosevelt,  Prof. Gilbert appears to be saying, in effect, Coolidge had great promise; he was considered a progressive governor of Massachusetts and began his presidency as an active shaper of legislation, but then an episode of depression threw him off track and he became the sleepwalking,  inactive president we know from the history books.

In other words, only a depressed and disengaged individual could possibly have steered the country the way Coolidge did after 1924; it could not have been by choice, inclination or principle that Coolidge made the decisions he did; he would have acted differently if he had been in full command of his senses. I believe this assessment to be wrong. My impression from reading transcripts of his weekly press conferences, for one, does not suggest a depressed and disengaged individual. Rather, president Coolidge was guided by his interpretation of the limited constitutional function of the presidency and by his noninterventionist political philosophy.

“Torment and tragedy” will be continued.

Coolidge Museum and Education Center

President Calvin Coolidge’s hometown and boyhood home of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, has been called the best- preserved presidential site in the nation. Unfortunately, the visitor center is not open year-round (the one and only time I was in the vicinity, the center had not yet opened for the Summer) and the facilities are not really commensurate with the importance of the 30th president. Today, we are accustomed to lavish Presidential Libraries, but the Presidential Library System was not enacted into law before 1955, and Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, was the earliest president whose life and career was represented by such a facility.

It is therefore with some excitement that I note the start of construction of The President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center which will provide to visitors and scholars alike a state-of-the-art facility that will be accessible year-round (so, no more excuses on my next visit). Visit the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation website for more detail (and to see, albeit on a tiny screen, an excellent video about president Coolidge).

Daily (or perhaps weekly) dose of Coolidge

“While I am in favor of debt reduction and also in favor of tax reduction, I expect to accomplish both purposes by also being in favor of constructive economy and scrutinizing with great care all proposals to embark the government in any new enterprises that are not absolutely necessary.”

(Press conference, Oct. 10, 1927)


The Last Arcadia: Coolidge and the 1920s

The rehabilitation of Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the U.S., has been a long time coming but may be picking up speed lately, what with the announcement of an all-new  biography by Amity Shlaes, due out in 2011.
The parallels, real or perceived, between the depression of the 1930s and the current economic downturn, as well as between policy responses by presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama make the actions or inactions of FDR’s pre-predecessor Coolidge particularly relevant for our time.
It will be the purpose of these pages to take part in the debate of Coolidge’s merits and failures, coming down squarely in Coolidge’s corner. In fact, the author believes, with noted historian Paul Johnson , that the 1920s, far from being a frivolous decade of debauchery and materialism, were in fact The Last Arcadia, a period of unparalleled and widespread prosperity AND unprecedented blossoming of the arts.

It will be one purpose of these pages to explore why the Coolidge era was the last heyday of limited Presidential power, and public approval of limited government. For while liberal critics even at the time derided Coolidge for allegedly having largely sleepwalked through his nearly six years in office, the general public overwhelmingly trusted the unprepossessing man, electing him again and again over the course of a linearly ascending political career that nevertheless had its lucky breaks. There is little doubt that the American electorate would have returned him to office in 1928, had he so “chosen”, yet it remains much to his credit that he was true to his stated belief that “it is a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.”