Roasting the president

Last Saturday some 2,000 politicians, celebrities, journalists and assorted hangers-on dined on crabmeat terrine and chocolate truffles and belly-laughed at remarks delivered by President Barack Obama during the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.  Since 1920, the annual affair has been one of Washington’s premier soirees for reporters, politicians and, more recently, celebrities (the other such venue being the even older Gridiron dinner, first attended by Grover Cleveland).  Apparently, another “first” chalked up by our favorite POTUS is being the first sitting president to attend – in 1924. Continue reading

Calvin Coolidge onstage

Watch our very own Calvin Coolidge onstage, as portrayed by frequent and knowledgeable commenter Jim Cooke, in a presentation of “Reagan’s Heroes” at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Calvin Coolidge, aka Jim Cooke, is -you guessed it- third from right

As one of Reagan’s Heroes, Coolidge is joined onstage by, and interacts with,  Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy… and of course, Ronald Reagan “himself”.

Civility ain’t what it used to be…or is it?

It may be a straining just a little to post on this blog a comment on the dreadful shooting of U.S. Rep. Giffords that left six people dead. The link between this horrific event and our political past lies in the present tendency to think that political discourse was better, wiser, cleaner, more respectful in the good old days. Responding to the many voices demanding that the use “inflammatory rhetoric” or graphic imagery should be restricted in political discourse, Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, has already ably refuted that argument (while Jacob Weisberg, also writing at Slate, exemplifies the weak argument that the heated rhetoric “made (the attack) more likely”). Pointed rhetoric, ad hominem attacks and slanderous graphics have, in fact, been a part of the political scene in the United States going back as far as George Washington and it has been the rare individual who has refrained from using such tactics or encouraged the use of such tactics by his supporters. I firmly believe, and the record bears me out, that Calvin Coolidge is one of those rare individuals who preferred to run on his record rather than smear or tear down his opponents. Still, and as Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner, negative rhetoric and graphic statements are protected by the First Amendment, distasteful as they may be to some, and the loss would be infinitely greater if well- (or not-so-well) meaning politicians started censoring free speech (even more).

While it is true that technologies such as the internet have made the distribution of borderline, paranoid and just plain crazy views easier, we just do not know what motivates a person to action. For all we know, Loughner and his ilk may get instructions to kill from perusing a roll of toilet paper. It so happens that the internet was not around when Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, not even when an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life not that long ago. The level of intensity of political debate is no indicator for the likelihood that a deranged individual carries out his or her plans. While we admire individuals who take the high road, we should not give in to the temptation to try and legislate away the low road – it will always be with us and is a part of political discourse. As Harry Truman used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Grace Coolidge and the Clarke School for the Deaf

The position of First Lady, while unsalaried and without any official duties, is nonetheless a highly visible one, and its functions have evolved over time beyond the classic one of being the hostess of the White House.

In recent decades, we’ve become accustomed to seeing First Ladies adopt socially relevant causes and lend their charm and prestige to these non-partisan and non-divisive causes. Thus, Lady Bird Johnson adopted the causes of environmental protection and beautification of especially the nation’s capital; Pat Nixon promoted volunteerism; Betty Ford entered potentially divisive waters by championing women’s rights; Rosalynn Carter adopted mental disbilities as her cause; Nancy Reagan worked for drug awareness; Laura Bush advocated literacy, and Michelle Obama is emphasizing helping women balance career and family.

In Calvin and Grace Coolidge’s day, the role of First Lady was not yet as publicly visible as today. Her primary and customary role as hostess was one she filled with exemplary grace, easily complementing her retiring and introverted husband.

The one cause she adopted, in a quiet way, was her interest in the deaf. At the age of 23, she enrolled at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here she learned lip reading, and the didactic necessities of working with and teaching deaf children. She began her work there by teaching primary children, and later taught in the intermediate school.

It was during her three years at Clarke that Grace Goodhue, as she was then, met Calvin Coolidge – her first encounter having a humorous touch, as reported by her biographer Ishbel Ross:

“One day as Grace was watering the flowers (…) she chanced to look up at the Weir House and saw a strange spectacle. A man stood at the window, shaving. Grace stared, for undeniably he wore a hat, and also apparently his union suit. She burst out laughing, then turned away and continued sprinkling the flowers. The man was Calvin Coolidge and he had heard the hearty laughter that was to become a familiar part of his future life.”

In her years in the White House, Grace Coolidge never forgot her interest in the cause of deaf people and while she did not publicly plead their cause or lent backing to the needs or demands of private institutions, she frequently mentioned the deaf, especially deaf children, at private and official functions, quietly spreading the word. Her concern for the special needs of the deaf undoubtedly caused her husband to give special heed to such programs that would affect the well-being of the handicapped. Shortly before the Coolidges left the White House, a group of wealthy and influential friends and backers, among them Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, philanthropist Edward S. Harkness, and publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis, offered the president $2,000,000 to fund a memorial library or to use as he saw fit. Characteristically modest, the president declined the offer, and, no doubt thanks to the efforts of the First Lady, the full amount, a very substantial sum for the times, was used to fund the Clarke School.

In the final years of her life, she worked with her numerous private and political contacts to support a centennial development program for the school. As Ishbel Ross recounts, this was all done very quietly and after her death in 1957, fellow trustee Senator John F. Kennedy would comment:

“As a fellow trustee of Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, I have a strong personal recollection of her untiring devotion and labors throughout her life to this most worthy cause… Since her days in the White House she continued to epitomize the qualities of graciousness, charm and modesty which marked her as an ideal First Lady of the Land.”

Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879 - 1957)