Good old Calvin Coolidge, a hero for a simpler time

The Argument

Character and minimizing government intrusion bring a scorned 'do-nothing' progressive to the fore.

January 03, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,special to the sun

Nineteen ninety-eight was a very good year for the president. President Calvin Coolidge, that is. Routinely disparaged in the past, he is getting new-found respect. He was treated respectfully in two 1998 hardcover biographies: ``The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge'' by Robert H. Ferrell (University Press of Kansas, 244 pages, $29.95), and ``Coolidge: An American Enigma'' by Robert Sobel (Regnery, 462 pages, $34.95).

Plus there was a 1998 hardcover collection of 12 long essays based on papers delivered at a 1995 Library of Congress symposium on Coolidge: ``Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s'' edited by John Earl Haynes (Library of Congress, 329 pages, $50). The essays were generally positive.

Then there was the publication of 20 largely pro-Coolidge essays based on papers and remarks at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Library last July: ``Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence.'' It was published as the Fall 1998 issue of ``The New England Journal of History'' (124 pages, unpriced).

Then there is ``Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.'' It is a novel written by John Derbyshire. Published as a hardcover in 1996, a quality paperback version came out in 1997 (St. Martin's Griffin, 273 pages, $11.95). The protagonist is a Chinese immigrant to the contemporary United States who worships Coolidge.

What's going on? Coolidge has never been regarded as a good or important president by historians, political scientists and political journalists. He has been ranked as below average at best, a failure at worst.

There are, I believe, two main reasons for that. One, he was a conservative, business-oriented ``do-nothing'' president, and most historians, political scientists and journalists are liberals who prefer activists in the White House. And two, many students of the ``Coolidge era,'' including a few conservatives, believe Coolidge was to some degree responsible for the stock market crash and even World War II.

There are also two main reasons for the recent re-evaluation. One is nostalgia for a simpler time, less governmental presence in the average citizen's life, and a more straightforward political environment. The other reason is that ``character'' is back in vogue as an important - and missing - quality in the White House.

``Nobody ever questioned Coolidge's integrity,'' asserted Michael Dukakis at the Kennedy Library conference.

Another Democratic presidential nominee who had a high regard for Coolidge is quoted in Sobel's biography: Al Smith said on the ex-president's death, ``He belonged in the class of presidents who were distinguished for character more than for heroic achievements. He was keen, kindly and entirely free from conceit, pompousness and political hokum.''

As for the differences in politics and politicking then and now as an explanation for the nostalgia for Coolidge, I like what Richard Norton Smith, political biographer and presidential archivist, told the Kennedy Library conference: ``Our timing is hardly coincidental. In an age when much public life is riddled by fakery - when candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content, Coolidge deserves reappraisal for his authenticity as much as his ideology.''

No president has ever been more authentic an American. He was born on the Fourth of July in Vermont, made his name in Massachusetts politics, working up the ladder from one office to the next till he was selected for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1920, by the delegates spontaneously, after the bosses had chosen Warren Harding for presidential nominee in history's most famous smoke-filled room.

Coolidge advocates at the convention stressed that he was, Ferrell recounts, ``sterling in his Americanism.''

Three years later, Harding, his administration wracked by scandal and corruption, died, and Coolidge became president. He was elected in his own right in 1924 and became the most popular American president between the two Roosevelts.

Almost every positive stereotype of the old WASP-y Yankee fits Coolidge. Hardworking, forthright, unextravagant in speech, garb, consumption and behavior, honest to a fault, a heritage of rural communities, small farms and small businesses, local rule and discipline-inducing harsh winters. Strong for family.

His reluctance to invoke the federal government in active betterment of society was closer to 18th century Republican (Jeffersonian) thought than 20th.

Novelist Derbyshire looks further, much further, back through the centuries for the wellsprings of Coolidge-ism.

The main character in ``Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream'' is Chia, a former Red Guard who escapes to America and becomes a banker in New York. He explains Coolidge to his wife thusly: ``The man was a Confucian. Human beings naturally good. Social harmony through the moral perfection of self. Serve the people. Not much need for laws if the leaders give a good example.''

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