Coolidge Does Matter, New Book Argues

Maybe ‘Silent Cal' Actually Had the Right Idea

Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:00pm

What would Calvin Coolidge do?

It certainly doesn’t sound like the first question that comes to mind, especially to those who might be trying to fix today’s governmental problems.

But Coolidge is turning out to be surprisingly popular with a certain set looking to the past for help.

Imagining what Coolidge would do is what 21 politicians, academics and historians ask in “Why Coolidge Matters,” a new compilation of essays about the 30th president. The book will be released next week.

Sen. John Kerry, for instance, writes an essay in which he describes Coolidge, a Republican, as “nothing like the polished, rhetoric-laden politicians of today. He was reserved, introspective and a man of few words.”

“While Americans in the twenty-first century might question the ability of a Coolidge-like Chief Executive to handle the crises of the day, in 1923 he was exactly what the nation needed to restore trust in the government,” the Massachusetts Democrat writes. “His reputation for integrity and his principled governance spoke for itself.”

Coolidge, who was in office from 1923 to 1928, isn’t considered one of history’s great presidents. But Michael Robinson, executive director of the National Notary Association, said those presidents who hold a special place in history, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, held office during tumultuous times. The 1920s are often considered a prosperous time for Americans — but few consider why times were good.

Robinson attributes the golden age of the Roaring ’20s to Coolidge’s administration. When Coolidge took office, the country was drowning in debt accumulated during World War I. Details of Teapot Dome, a bribery scandal involving an oil field in Wyoming and President Warren Harding, were starting to come out. If Coolidge had failed as president, he could have blamed the circumstances he was in, Robinson said.

Instead, by the end of his presidency, there were budget surpluses and low tax rates. Per-capita income had risen and unemployment had dropped.

The idea that Coolidge, whose nickname was “Silent Cal,” had something to teach modern politicians was what inspired the creation of the book. It began four years ago with the NNA. Coolidge holds a special place in the association’s history, since he was the only president to be sworn in by a notary public; with Harding’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1923, Coolidge was sworn into the presidency while standing in the living room of his family farm in Plymouth, Vt.

Looking at the partisan climate that had taken over the political arena, NNA officials decided to publish a book of essays about Coolidge, Robinson said.

Coolidge “exemplified some of the important characteristics needed in politics today, including true adherence to the law, the notion of being an impartial witness, evenhandedness and a commitment to public service,” Robinson said.

NNA reached out to the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth to find Coolidge scholars to contribute to the book. Together, they rounded up a group of writers that includes Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D).

Originally, the book was slated to be published in 2007, during the NNA’s 50th anniversary. But the economic recession pushed back the publication date to this year. In a convenient twist, the book is now being published on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation.

Joan Randall, the foundation’s executive director and a self-proclaimed Coolidge enthusiast, said she hopes people embrace Coolidge’s legacy. “I think his integrity, trust and consistency are traits that leaders need today,” she said. “I believe that people long for that trust.”

Dukakis describes those traits in his essay. Though Coolidge was a Republican, Dukakis found in his research that Coolidge had proposed universal health care in Massachusetts and was trusted by those in labor unions.

“Nobody ever questioned Coolidge’s integrity, including his political opponents,” Dukakis writes. “And it is why Coolidge not only matters today, but is relevant for the times.”

The Library of Congress will host a Books & Beyond discussion on “Why Coolidge Matters” at noon Tuesday in the Mumford Room of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE. Guest speakers include Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R), Milton Valera of the NNA and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).