Our Most Under-rated President: A Birthday Tribute
By: David Bozeman
One of my favorite July 4th traditions is penning a birthday tribute to Calvin Coolidge. I typically start with a biographical sketch, continue with some of Silent Cal’s wittiest and most insightful quotations and conclude with a lament that leaders of such grace and principle are sorely missing from politics today.
That’s too easy — just google him. The true legacy of Calvin Coolidge lies in the hearts of Americans inspired by his rich, rustic example of thrift, self-sufficiency and public service. Nothing here is meant to paint 1920′s America as idyllic, but the fatal error of liberalism is their idea that because any society is flawed, it must necessarily be torn down and rebuilt. President Coolidge cherished America’s founding values and institutions — a product of rural, religious Vermont, he didn’t just learn the values of hard work and propriety, he LIVED them and sought to perpetuate them to everyone, both legislatively and oratorically.
Historians typically rank Coolidge as below average. The bluster of Teddy Roosevelt and the socialist, academic pedigree of Woodrow Wilson both seem more attractive on paper compared to a one-time country lawyer who claimed his greatest achievement as president was “minding my own business.” (I know, I promised no quotes, but I couldn’t resist).
We today are so consumed with our own modernity and the frills of our technological age that such Coolidge-inspired concepts as thrift, toil and persistence as answers to major problems seem about as relevant as the speakeasies and silent movies that defined his era. But it is not so much his belief in smaller, leaner government that endears Silent Cal to more and more conservatives (though it helps!) as the fact that he did not need to be a fiery ideologue to sell his ideals. He merely spoke common sense, or call it homespun wisdom if you prefer, but the American people appreciated him not in spite of the fact that he seemed an anomaly to his time and place but actually BECAUSE of his very contrast (a famous biography is entitled A Puritan in Babylon) . Imagine, an era, though decadent and nurturing worldwide upheaval, when the embodiment New England stoicism, restrained federal power and fidelity to the Constitution were not seen as radical or even controversial!
Coolidge was also admired for his even tenor. Today, with discourse so hyper-partisan and presidential candidates expected to exude movie star appeal to every demographic, Coolidge was dour, calm and moderate. Not moderate so much in today’s meaning; he just knew how to apply his principles, never carried away by his own rhetoric. A strong advocate of capitalism and progress, he once remarked that “prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.” Though he believed in the capacity of government for good, remarking in 1919 that “the state is not founded on selfishness. . . it is the opportunity for service,” he noted at the same time that the state “cannot maintain itself by the offer of material rewards.”
His calm demeanor accentuated his abiding faith in the American people. “Liberty,” he said in 1924, “is not collective, it is personal. All liberty is individual.” Today, of course, political destinies live and die on demographics and spin.
But nearly 100 years ago, a leader actually predicated his leadership on the goodwill and decency of the American people. “Governments don’t make ideals,” he said in 1926, ” but ideals make governments.” Calvin Coolidge is buried in Plymouth Notch, Vermont (along with his home, well worth a visit). But for the presidential seal, his headstone looks like all the others, because he once said that the he came from the people and wanted to be remembered thus so. Contrast his dignity and oneness with America to a certain presidential candidate who inspired apparent fainting spells in 2008 (and sucked up the adulation with a straw). Could a man with so little arrogance and vanity as Coolidge win election today? Debatable. The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents (Wilson to Obama), which grades each leader on his adherence to the Constitution, gives Coolidge an A+ (Reagan got an A-). If a man of Silent Cal’s caliber couldn’t win election today, then it says less about him than it does about America.