The news that President Reagan's admiration for Calvin Coolidge has led him to hand Silent Cal's portrait in the White House cabinet room has been puzzling the pundits. Coolidge, who was president from 1923 to 1929, was a plain-looking , plain-speaking Yankee lawyer as far removed from the glamour of Hollywood and Pacific Palisades as the plain, wood-frame house he and Mrs. Coolidge called home in Northampton, Mass.
Coolidge's reportedly dour personality and verbal parsimony are a far cry from Reagan's hearty good fellowship. The wags of Coolidge's time dined out for days on stories of his taciturnity. In one classic anecdote, President Coolidge was told by a lady seated next to him at a White House dinner, "I've bet my friends I can make you say more than two words."
"You lose," answered Silent Cal.
But there should be no surprise in Reagan's esteem for Silent Cal. Reagan ran for president pledging a fiscal conservatism that would attempt to reduce the budget, the bureaucracy, and the tax rate, all targets of the Coolidge program. Coolidge, in his inaugural address of March 4, 1925, went so far as to call excessive taxation "legalized larceny." He was alarmed at the increase in the number of federal government employees under his predecessors. To a group of government agency managers he said, "We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of either an undeveloped people or a decadent civilization."
To those who criticized the simplicity of his parsimonious precepts, Coolidge administered a dose of Yankee common sense. "Perhaps someday I'll write on 'The Importance of the Obvious.' If all the folks in the US would do a few, simple things they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves."
In recent years Coolidge has been scorned for having had no real legislative program but for simply vetoing a series of big spending bills. But in 1981, with government spending soaring to heights unimagined in Coolidge's day, this so-called "vice" must appear to president Reagan a virtue to be emulated.
In the '20s, stories of Coolidge's personal frugality swept the nation while he made public economy the watchword of his presidency. With a surprising touch of showmanship, he used the news media to pound home the guiding principle of his New England Puritan ancestors "waste not, want not." Like Reagan, he was most effective on the electronic news media -- in Coolidge's era, the radio. He saw to it that his State of the Union message in December 1923 was carried by radio and he made an average of one monthly radio talk destined exclusively for a radio audience, all innovations in his time.
Coolidge's use of the print media was sophisticated for his era. He was the first president to hold biweekly press conference and to take the press with him on vacations. Understanding the reporters' need for news flow as well as his own need to propagate his message, he provided them with the first mythical "White House spokesman," a name devised by newsmen to get around the prohibition from quoting the President.
Coolidge shrewdly encouraged the news media to make himself a living symbol of the economy he hoped to inspire in government workers and the nation as a whole. In the end, his quiet presidency became a period of unprecedented prosperity in America.
But Coolidge in recent years has been labeled and dismissed as "the president of big business." The wealth of anecdotes about his silence and frugality have lent him the reputation of a minor eccentric. Now it seems that President Reagan may try to bring the image of the forgotten president into focus. His efforts to rehabilitate Calvin Coolidge may go hand-in-hand with his attempt to rehabilitate t he old-fashioned virtues.