Cool Like Cal
Washington — I am fond of Calvin Coolidge and share the emotion with Ronald Reagan. When the President-elect had a syndicated radio commentary of couple of years ago he devoted a broadcast to Coolidge. A press report says that he is going to bring paintings of three presidents into the Oval office: Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Coolidge. The folk figure of Coolidge may cheer him up.
There is a painting of Coolidge in one of the lower corridors of the White House now, but it is too severe. I don't think it catches the personality, the little caustic Yankee grin at the corner of the lips. There was a tang to the little man, like a winter-green leaf from a Vermont pasture. As vice-president he lived in the Willard Hotel for economy, and when he moved to the White House the story goes that a guard found that he had taken his rocker to the front porch. The guard explained that presidents normally sat on the rear portico. The Coolidge reply was, "I want to see the street cars go by." America was full of Coolidge jokes and Model T jokes: his frugality santified an era of extravagance: he was the moral symbol that the times seemed to demand even though they didn't live up to him. Every afternoon he took a nap. Happy the land whose leader can nap in the afternoon.
I looked up Coolidge's inaugural address while I was about it. He made it March 4, 1925, and the lead story in The Christian Science Monitor reported "a ceremony that was striking for the simplicity in comparison with the sumptuous past inaugurals that the capital has known." He spoke, the account says, "without oratorical flourishes." The story is unsigned but I think I am violating no confidence at this late date by revealing that it is in my scrapbook. The article fails to mention, however, the most revealing passage in the address. The outdoor crowd could hear him by the newly invented amplifiers, and the speech was broadcast by the still more remarkable radio system that now spanned the nation. He told them briefly that "This country believes in prosperity." He developed this in a passage considerably more fundamental and controversial:
"All owners of property are charged with a service. These rights and duties have been revealed, through the conscience of society, to have a divine sanction. The very stability of our society rests upon production and conservation. For individuals or for governments to waste and squander their resources is to deny these rights and disregard these obligations. The result of economic dissipation to a nation is always moral decay."
You can refer that passage to the how's- that-again department? Did Coolidge actually say that property had "divine sanction"? Some argued he had, some argued he hadn't. One way or another the brief passage, like a remembered chord , brings back the day, the mood, and the man.
Call Coolidge had one trick which Ronald Reagan might emulate. It was how to deal with a reception crowd of a thousand or more people all advancing on him with inexorable extended hands. The Marine band is playing, the place is filled with ferns, palms, and cyclamen and in the crowd is an unimaginably young reporter wearing a terrific collar, a starched shirt, and a white tie. The reporter later jots down his impressions of gracious Grace Coolidge and Cal, "as dry and tart as a New Hampshire windfall." The account continues:
"There is a pleasant enough beam in his eye but whether he is thinking about you or about the efficient handshake rhythm he has mastered is the question. He gets your hand before you grasp his; you find your arm going up and down in a methodical pump even as you are politely but firmly propelled forward out of the way of the next-in-line, while the little Yankee President, on every third stroke, methodically murmurs 'Ummmm-umph.'"
So that's the story. Let me finish the contemporary account, which continues:
"And there you are, dancing afterwards, with ferns and bowls, and flowers and American eagles, and prismatic chandeliers and gold draperies, and refreshments and music and star dust and history all flung about together."
Not so different I imagine from the future dances under Ronald Reaga n.