Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Birthday

No… I am not talking about that 231 yr old republic. I am referring to the only President of the United States born on the 4th of July; a man often graded poorly among Presidents when ranked by historians. He also happens to be my favorite president.

John Calvin Coolidge (he would drop the John early in life) was born on July 4th 1872 in Plymouth Vermont. Although he would go on to a memorable political career in neighboring Massachusetts, Vermont would always hold a special place in his heart. This dour and taciturn New England Yankee would become the most conservative president of the last century and perhaps the only true Jeffersonian to occupy the White House. He had a lifelong suspicion of government and believed that people were best left alone. At his core Coolidge believed the answer to most problems was hard work, thrift and minding your own business. He was also deeply old fashioned in many other respects.

Coolidge was the last president who wrote his own speeches (all of them) and the last who never learned how to drive a car. He refused to allow a telephone to be put in the oval office and generally refused to speak on one. He claimed they demeaned the dignity of the office and you could never tell who was listening. On which point I think he was ahead of his time. Coolidge was the butt of countless jokes and he laughed all the way to the political bank. He was an extremely reserved and reticent man though he had a very dry wit of his own. It was said that he rarely smiled in public. (Oddly his wife Grace Coolidge was the complete opposite of her husband, a beautiful and socially graceful woman who was the life of the party and a ray of light in the darkest room.) One wag said that seeing Calvin Coolidge smile was like watching the ice break up on a New England river. Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of the former president, once quipped that Coolidge looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle. Newspaper columnist Dorothy Parker when told of his death in 1933 exclaimed “How can you tell?”

Calvin Coolidge presided over a period of great national prosperity and cut taxes twice. He balanced the budget every year he was in office (1923-1929) and reduced the public debt. He wielded the veto frequently cutting government spending at every opportunity. He briefly ordered government employees to type on both sides of each piece of paper in order to reduce paper expenditures. He threatened to fire the White House Chef once for cooking a whole ham for a state dinner with over 200 guests. It was popularly said that when Coolidge held a nickel he could squeeze it so hard you could hear the buffalo roar.

Nor was it only in his public life that Coolidge was parsimonious. Once while taking a walk late in his term as President, Coolidge stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and stunned his companion Col. Edmund Starling (Coolidge’s long time secret service guard) by offering to buy him an ice cream float. Starling explained that when Coolidge pulled out his change purse it appeared to be one passed down from his grandfather and that dust flew from it when the President opened it and extracted the requisite nickel for the treat.

Mrs. Coolidge once related how not long after they had married, she had been smooth talked by a door to door salesman and had bought a large volume of supposed home medical advice for the sum of $10.00 (a not inconsiderable amount in those days). Later she came to regret the purchase and worried what her husband would think. So she stuck the book on the shelf and waited for any reaction. None however seemed to come and she soon forgot about it. Several years later while preparing to move she found the book and sat down with it. When she opened it she found in her husbands crisp handwriting a short note inscribed on the inside of the cover. “I find in this work no cure for a sucker.”

This respect for the value of the penny appears to have been instilled in the future president at an early age. Coolidge himself related the story of how when he was a young boy in the summer of 1880 he asked his father for a penny so that he could buy a candy stick. His father soberly explained that it was an election year and it appeared that the Democrats were going to win. This would mean hard times and he would therefore need to learn economy. However in November Coolidge went back to his father and “I pointed out that the election returns indicated we were to continue a Republican administration. With that view presented I was able to secure the advance of the sum requested.”

But it was his legendary reticence for which Coolidge is best remembered. His nickname was “Silent Cal.” One probably apocryphal story has Coolidge seated next to two women at a dinner when one leans toward him and says “Mr. President, I have made a wager that I can get you to say more than two words.” Coolidge is supposed to have replied “You loose.” It was reported that a state dinner for the Queen of Romania the only words that passed his lips were “Salt please.” Mrs. Coolidge once told the story of how her husband had been invited to hear a famous preacher who was visiting Washington. Later that day while reading the paper together in silence she asked him what he thought of the sermon. “Good” he responded. After a few minutes of silence she decided to press on for more details. What was the subject she asked? “Sin” replied the President of the United States. Somewhat exasperated his wife soldiered on… “What did he have to say about it?” Coolidge now clearly annoyed at the distraction from his newspaper looked up and replied “He’s against it.”

All of this aside the 30th President had a very human side. He was a devoted family man who doted on his wife and deeply loved his two sons. He tried very hard to instill in them the same values he had been raised with, respect for hard work and thrift. While serving as president his younger son Calvin Jr. worked as a field hand at a tobacco plantation in Virginia. When one of the boy’s friends noted that if his father was President of the United States he would not be cutting tobacco in a field, young Cal replied “if your father was my father you would.”

In the summer of 1924 tragedy struck. Calvin Jr. took a short break and while visiting the White House with some friends went out to play lawn tennis. While doing this the boy got a blister which became infected. In this day and age such an infection would be cured quickly with antibiotics. But this was not available in the 1920’s. For days the President sat at his son’s side while he lingered in great agony. It was a presidential election year and in an age when partisan politics were not nearly as nasty as they have become in recent times, the Democrats interrupted the proceedings of their convention twice daily to read medical bulletins on the boys condition and offer prayer. When Calvin Jr. finally died his father was crushed.

Coolidge later wrote that when his son died, the power and glory of the presidency died with him. Not long after the boy’s death Col Starling reported that a boy was seen standing outside the White House fence. When asked what he was doing by a Secret Service man, the boy said he had come to tell the president how sorry he was about his son’s death. The guard then brought the boy in and took him to the oval office where he was introduced to President Coolidge. Coolidge was deeply affected and according to the guard nearly lost his composure. After the meeting the President instructed the Secret Service that if any other children came to the White House and asked to see the President they were to be admitted. Those orders were scrupulously observed for the rest of Coolidge’s tenure in office.

Calvin Coolidge quoted:

“Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.”

“It is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow.”

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of face within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments requires the severe discipline of hard work and the tempering heat of experience and maturity.”

“Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil. Our great hope lies in developing what is good.”

“Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge any one to show where in nature any rights existed or were recognized until there was established for their declaration and protection a duly promulgated body of corresponding laws.”

“No man ever listened himself out of a job.”

“No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

“Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”

“Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”

“The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”

“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.”

“We do not need more intellectual power, we need more spiritual power. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.”

“We need more of the Office Desk and less of the Show Window in politics. Let men in office substitute the midnight oil for the limelight.”

“Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.”

“Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

“I have never been hurt by what I have not said.” – on the virtue of silence

“Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.”

1 comment:

gabriel said...

Excellent tale of the man- thanks.