Columnist Richard Szlosek: Last truly modest man in the White House

  • Calvin Coolidge always did his job but basically went unnoticed as president.

Published: 2/6/2018 7:32:29 PM

The first four vice presidents to ascend to the office of president on the death of the sitting leader were John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur. None of them were able to win re-election on their own.

The first man to break that string was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. The next one to accomplish it was Calvin Coolidge in 1924 and then came Harry Truman in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Coolidge — what an unusual and interesting quartet. Those first three were like meteors that blazed across the political sky and caught everyone’s attention. Just consider their popular perceptions: Roosevelt; the charge up San Juan Hill, pacifier of the Philippines, builder of the Panama Canal, trust-buster, speak softly and carry a big stick; Truman; drop the A-bomb, seize the steel mills, Korean War, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”; Johnson; the war on poverty, Great Society and Vietnam.

But what comes to mind when you mention Coolidge? There’s the Boston Police strike but that happened when he was still governor of Massachusetts. Most folks would think of a somnambulant, silent Cal who was given to pithy statements and was the source of humor for the wits of his era. Coolidge was a quiet sun in the political firmament who always did his job but basically went unnoticed.

I once had a conversation with Jim Cook, the well-known Coolidge impersonator. He made the point that, almost without exception, the men we call great leaders were war presidents. Certainly, the first three names in the quartet had significant military action during their terms. In contrast, Coolidge may have been the most anti-war president we ever had. In 1927 the U.S. and Mexico were having border problems. Coolidge appointed his friend, Dwight Morrow, as ambassador to Mexico with the instruction to “keep us out of war.”

Early in 1928, Coolidge personally went to Havana to a meeting of Latin American nations with the aim of improving relations with our neighbors in the hemisphere. Later that same year, he supported Secretary of State Frank Kellogg in his negotiations with his French counterpart, Aristide Briand, which led to the Kellogg/Briand pact that outlawed war as a means of settling international disputes. Except for the Soviet Union, all the major powers signed onto the agreement. Ultimately, of course, it did not work, but certainly the attempt to outlaw war was admirable.

When I was much younger and attended folk concerts, someone would inevitably sing the song that went: “Last night I had the strangest dream, I never dreamed before. I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.”

No one ever seemed to have a clue that the Coolidge administration had actually done that. Similarly, each time I read about a peace rally, the speakers all quote Gandhi and Martin Luther King but there is never a mention of Coolidge. Unfortunately, Coolidge never led a march for peace and was not the kind to make quotable speeches. All he did was get some 60 nations to agree to stop using war as an instrument of policy.

In an equally small but important way, Coolidge tried to rectify the longtime mistreatment of Native Americans. He signed a bill making the indigenous inhabitants full-fledged citizens of the nation. While visiting South Dakota in 1927, Coolidge was showered with many gifts and made an honorary chief by the local tribes.

For some reason, historians and the press refused to recognize the respect and friendship the tribes had for him. Instead, those ceremonies usually depict Coolidge as an embarrassed, ill-at-ease leader in his Indian headdress who is being mocked and not venerated. His image has suffered ever since, despite his genuine concern for the plight of all the tribes. And remember that Teddy Roosevelt, for all his years of being a rough-riding cowboy in the Dakotas, never considered signing such a bill.

Coolidge was perhaps the last truly modest man to sit in the White House. He once wrote to his father, “The president must remember he is not a great man.” Can you imagine Roosevelt, Truman or Johnson writing such a thought?

Coolidge was always polite and respectful in public. He never criticized an opponent and his speeches dwelled upon his proposals and never on invective. He believed in small government, a balanced budget and low taxes. He was keenly aware that the world was moving away from his philosophy and once said, “I feel I no longer belong in these times.” If he could look back, I think he would say, “After me came the imperial presidency”.

If the quartet was a modern-day musical group, the big three would spend all their time fighting for the spotlight. Coolidge would be the one making sure they got their paycheck, had a place to stay for the night and transportation to their next gig. He will always be number four in that group, but he won more elections than any of them and certainly deserves to be more honored here in his chosen hometown.

There were certainly flaws in his administration. But wouldn’t it be nice to see a little modesty in Washington and have a leader with whom you could keep cool instead of one who constantly makes you hot under the collar?

Richard Szlosek, of Northampton, volunteers in the Calvin Coolidge Room at Forbes Library.

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