Best laid plans

Cover of Col. Starling's memoirs

In the memoirs of Col. Edmund W Starling, there is a most poignant episode that illustrates how very much Calvin Coolidge looked forward to his retirement from the presidency. The story, while difficult or impossible to corroborate, has an authentic ring to it, and it is true that Coolidge and Starling got along very well. Starling recounts how Coolidge phoned him late on the night before the Hoover inauguration on March 4, 1929 – Starling had been busy all day with the security arrangements. The two of them had talked previously about Starling leaving the Secret Service and coming to work for (and travel with), and Coolidge wanted to talk over their plans. “How about starting now? Let’s get a map up here and mark out our trip.” In a room that had already been stripped bare of everything but the bed, the two chairs, and a small, low table at the foot of the bed. The two co-conspirators began mapping out the route from Northampton – first, to the Brule River, for trout fishing, then on to the State Game Lodge in the Black Hills, where Coolidge had loved to vacation. Starling continued, “Glacier National Park ought to be next. We’ll go to Shelby, Montana, to get there. Then we can go to the salmon country in Washington and Oregon.” “I want to get some of those salmon,” Coolidge put in. “Then we’ll go down the Redwood Trail and up to Yosemite. They have rainbow trout there as big as your leg.”

The First Lady came in softly, looking over Starling’s shoulder for a look at the map. “That’s going to be a wonderful trip,” she said. “Promise you’ll bring me back something.” Starling recalls that her face had a soft, almost ethereal loveliness. “She’s glad to be getting out of here,” he thought. “And so is he.” According to Starling’s memoirs, it was 2:30 when he bid the president goodnight.

Having seen the Coolidges off on the train to Northampton following the inaugural, Starling began to serve Coolidge’s successor Herbert Hoover but didn’t warm to the man. Somehow the planned trip with Coolidge never came to pass, and one morning in January 1933 the clerk at the Willard Hotel where Starling roomed handed him a letter postmarked “Northampton, Massachusetts, January 2, 8:30 p.m., 1933.” It was from Calvin Coolidge. Starling noted that the writing seemed less firm than usual. The letter read:

Dear Colonel Starling:We have heard you were in Kentucky. I suppose it is your annual visit. No doubt you found it was very lovely. Nevertheless I venture to offer the greetings of the season and hope the change did you good. A card came from someone I suppose was the lame paper boy at the corner. Please thank him. I do not have his address. I find I am more and more worn out. I am sorry for anyone in office these days. Yours, Calvin Coolidge.

The next afternoon the papers carried the news of his death. As Starling recounts:

I left the following morning for Northampton. When I arrived at the Coolidge residence, The Beeches, I met Ted Clark, the little fellow’s [Starlings nickname for Coolidge] private secretary, and Frank Stearns. I told them I had come as a friend, not as advance man for the President. As we were talking Mrs. Coolidge called downstairs and said, “Don’t I hear Colonel Starling’s voice? Please tell him to come upstairs!” She met me with arms outstretched. Putting her head on my shoulder she wept. “Oh, why didn’t I write you to come and live with us?” she said. “I shall never forgive myself for not writing and letting you know how much he needed you. He wanted you so much, but he always said, “The President comes first. I am only a private citizen.” But if I had written to you and you had come this would not have happened.” (end quote)


Why I Did Not Choose To Run

Coolidge admirers celebrated the 88th anniversary of his accession to the presidency this past week; almost unnoticed remained the 84th anniversary of his famous and somewhat cryptic statement the he “did not choose” to run for re-election in 1928, a statement he made while vacationing in South Dakota in August of 1927.

There was some debate at the time whether he meant what he said, or if the statement left open a door to being drafted at the 1928 GOP convention, but his biographers are in agreement that Coolidge did indeed mean what he said. In a Cosmopolitan article in 1929, Coolidge himself explained as follows:

His retirement was prompted more by an inner impulse of what is right than by specific facts. He chose the fourth anniversary of his taking office to issue his statement. While he felt that the no-third-term tradition did not apply to him, as he had come up from the vice presidency, he still felt that 10 years in the White House was too long for any one person. “It is difficult to conceive how one man can successfully serve the country for a term of more than eight years.” He sought to avoid the appearance of selfish “grasping for office.” Presidents, Coolidge remarked, “are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly … assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”

Moreover, he felt the latter part of the adminstrations of two-term presidents often “showed very little in the way of constructive accomplishment” and were indeed “often clouded with grave disappointments.” These observations, coupled with his own desire to return to private life, Mr. Coolidge gave as his primary reasons for choosing to “retire voluntarily from the greatest experience that can come to mortal man.”

“We draw our presidents from the people,” wrote Citizen Coolidge. “It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”