“Silent” Calvin Coolidge: A President Nobody Knows But Should!
By Hobie Morris
“Among Calvin Coolidge’s fine qualities, two stand out above the others: common sense and sound character. He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength. Perhaps, in a democracy, such men make the most trustworthy leaders.” – Claude M Fuess (1940)
“Ninety percent of politicians give the other 10 percent a bad name.” – Henry Kissinger
“A good politician under democracy is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.” – H.L. Mencken
An odd couple? Baseball legend Yogi Berra and 30th President Calvin Coolidge were kind of kindred souls. Both were famous for uttering simple nuggets of “off the wall” humor and good honest sense. For example, Yogi once warned “you’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”
Silent Cal, a man of few words, was once asked what he thought of sin. He replied “I’m against it.” (2020 politicians and presidential candidates please take note of the above.)
Along this line, Clarence Darrow once observed “When I was a boy I as told anybody could become president; I’m beginning to believe it.”
Darrow also warned if you “lose the power to laugh; you lose the power to think.” Compared to “Honest” Abe and “Silent” Cal, today’s politicians are bland, stale, humorless, and mostly boring. They are hot air producers who say and promise everything – especially at election time. Plato once observed “those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
While Abe and Cal set a high bar of wonderful storytelling and honest, often funny, quips and witticisms, other Presidents, on rare occasions, have shown their untapped humorous side. Will Rogers once asked President Harding if he would like hear all the latest political jokes. Harding replied “I know ‘em. I appointed most of them.”
Today’s political world, beginning in the Oval Office, is vindictive, narcissistic, braggadocios, and humorless. Sharp daggers, rather than harmless marshmallows, are the weapons of campaigning choice. Abe Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge would be horrified at how low America has fallen. As Will Rogers wrote, “Every politician talks about Lincoln, but none of them ever imitate him.”
In August 1923, Vice President Coolidge, on the death of Warren Harding, is sworn in as President by his father (a notary) around a kitchen table lit by kerosene lights in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the Coolidge’s home town.
Coolidge was a Vermont country boy; smart, likeable, but quiet who wanted to go beyond Plymouth – and did! While he’ll never be on South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore (although he loved to go to South Dakota, especially fishing), his originality, honesty, humility, good sense, and witty commentaries make him a favorite of this country man. With his dour personality and generally expressionless face, Coolidge could have been a Buster Keaton lookalike comedian. We have had jokers in the White House previously but no bona fide comedians!
As Massachusetts Governor, Coolidge was asked to help make peace between two state senators. One had told the other to “go to hell.” Coolidge replied, “I’ve looked up the law Senator, and you don’t have to go there.”
Coolidge had an overnight guest at the White House. At breakfast the guest saw the President pour coffee into a saucer and add milk and sugar. The guest, thinking he had to follow the President, did likewise. He was frozen in horror when he saw the President bend down and place the saucer on the floor – for his cat.
A prominent Washington society lady was sitting next to the President. She observed to him how quiet he was and said a friend had made her a bet that she couldn’t get more than 2 words out of Coolidge. “You lose” replied Coolidge.
At the laying of a cornerstone, President Coolidge turned up a spade full of dirt along with the anticipated, traditional appropriate remarks. Coolidge looked over the upturned dirt and said, “ that is a fine fish worm.”
As Governor, Coolidge hosted a very prominent Englishman. At one point, the man took out a British coin and said, “my great great grandfather was made a Lord by the King on this coin.” Coolidge pulled out a coin and said, “my great great grandfather was made an angel by the Indian on this coin.”
As Vice President, Coolidge was invited to many dinners. Hostesses would have an almost impossible time engaging him in conversation. One hostess was determined to change this. A brilliant conversationalist, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, was seated next to the Vice President: no success. Frustrated, she acidly asked him if all these dinners didn’t bore him. Without lifting his eyes from his plate, he replied, ”well, a man has to eat somewhere.”
Will Rogers was bet he couldn’t make President Coolidge smile. Shaking hands with the President, Rogers said, “Beg pardon, I didn’t catch the name”. (Well won bet.)
In retirement, the ex-President would sit on his front porch in Plymouth Notch. A reporter asked Coolidge how good he must feel not to be forgotten – as an occasional car slowly drove by. Coolidge replied, “Not as many as yesterday: there were 163 then.”
After his death, Coolidge’s widow travelled abroad. She didn’t want to make any waves as the ex-President’s wife. A traveling friend said not to worry, since they’d only be stopping in places where the people didn’t know one American President from another. Whlle in Italy, they stopped at a hotel where reservations had been made. Upon reaching the village hotel, the manager came out and began bowing profusely saying, “we are proud to welcome the wife of the great President of the U.S. Please register here Mrs. Lincoln.”
Calvin Coolidge was gone but not forgotten, and I’m sure he would laugh and his eyes would twinkle at this story.
President Coolidge said little, didn’t rock the boat of state, was honest, truthful, and in his dour way loved his New England heritage and his great country. He was a good decent person who epitomized the American spirit and the aspirations and dreams of the huge middle class. Maybe he is unknown to most history deprived Americans of today, but Calvin Coolidge shouldn’t be! The past has many important lessons to study and learn from, especially seldom remembered men and women of all colors and creeds and America’s documentary foundation that has helped make our democratic and unique governmental experiment so successful and vulnerable at the same time.
As humorist Will Rogers once declared, “I’m a member of no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” I am too but with Democrat spelled with a small “d”. I hope you are too.
Calvin Coolidge was a Republican in a democratic body raised in the rural Vermont countryside. This indelibly shaped his views. But these are only the musings of a simple country man.