Unto the Hills
The sober wisdom of Calvin Coolidge
Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
In 1920, he was on the Republican ticket with Harding. His feelings about the vice presidency were, at best, equivocal. He was in Boston, getting ready for dinner, when he received a phone call informing him that he had been nominated, on the tenth ballot, at the Republican convention in Chicago.
He told his wife, who said, “You’re not going to take it, are you?”
“Well,” Coolidge said, “I suppose I’ll have to.”
His duties as vice president consisted mainly of presiding over the Senate and attending various ceremonial and official dinners around Washington, which he did cheerfully enough.
“Got to eat somewhere,” he said.
Coolidge was back home in Plymouth Notch on August 2, 1923, when President Harding died of a heart attack in California. The news arrived in the early morning, and Coolidge was sworn in before sunrise in the light of a kerosene lamp by his father who was a notary. After taking the oath, Coolidge went back to bed.
Coolidge finished Harding’s term, after which he first refused, then accepted, his party’s nomination for president and won handily in the 1924 election. But it was a time more of sorrow than celebration. In July, Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of sepsis after a blister he’d raised while playing lawn tennis on the White House grounds became infected.
In his father’s autobiography, there is this:
Coolidge’s grief may have led him into a state of what would today be called depression. And Dorothy Parker might have wondered, “How could they tell?” But it does seem possible. Coolidge was less vital during his own term of office than he had been while finishing out Harding’s, and while he could have been renominated by his party and reelected by the voters, he declined to run and handed things off to Herbert Hoover, a man of far more activist inclinations, whom Coolidge held in fairly low regard, referring to him as “Wonder Boy,” and saying that Hoover “has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”
The debates over Coolidge’s place in history continue in some specialized arenas. He has, certainly, his advocates—among them Paul Johnson, who writes in Modern Times that he was “the most internally consistent and single-minded of modern American presidents.” According to Johnson, it was a Coolidge tactic “to mislead people into believing he was less sophisticated and active than he was (a ploy later imitated by Dwight Eisenhower).” And in the Coolidge years, “the USA enjoyed a general prosperity which was historically unique in its experience or that of any other society.”
But . . . but . . . but. The prosperity was false, according to . . . oh, take your pick. The economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, according to the conventional wisdom, was a fiction that collapsed in the Great Crash and led to the poisoned decade of the Great Depression. And it was not entirely Hoover’s fault. Coolidge was around for the setup and did nothing to prevent it and may, in fact, have seen it coming. It was shrewdness, not wisdom or sorrow, that motivated him not to run for another term. He wanted to get out while the getting was still good.
Still, it was an era of peace and prosperity—the last such period in American memory. It was a time when seven murders in Chicago was big news and not simply another day at the office. When almost 90 percent of the world’s automobiles were owned by Americans. When the country was becoming electrified. Radio was becoming ubiquitous. People were beginning to travel by air, and the movies were beginning to talk. When, in America, just about anything seemed possible except the legal consumption of whiskey. Taxes were low, profits were high, and life was good. The president’s contribution was to run an efficient, honest, frugal government, which Coolidge did.
When you visit Plymouth Notch, it is easy to imagine that Coolidge himself may have believed it could not last. Not because he had any special insight into stock market crashes and the economic effects of tariff wars and monetary contractions; though he may have.
More likely, because his roots were here, he understood in his bones that life is more hard work and sorrow than it is good times and plenty. And that nothing good lasts.
So while scholarly debate over his leadership is still possible, the popular verdict is pretty much sealed, and he is remembered for the naps and as someone who seldom said much, none of which was worth remembering since it comes down to the one quotation many people recognize, even if they don’t recall it as coming from Coolidge.
“The business of America is business,” he is supposed to have said, and that is considered the final proof that he was a philistine of the George Babbitt school.
Well, Coolidge did say it. Sort of. His actual statement was: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” To which he added, “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.” And then, in the last paragraph of the speech, Coolidge nailed it:
We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.
His own idealism was made of sterner stuff than the pabulum dispensed by present-day leaders. It celebrated the old virtues and was not calculated to make people necessarily feel good about themselves. As when he said: “The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil.”
But then, because he came from these hills, he did not spare himself. He had learned their lessons well, among them the virtue of humility, as when he appraised his time in office this way: “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”
Call that the last word.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.