Whooping it up for 'Silent Cal'

The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation of Plymouth, Vt., is out to deny the caricature of our 30th president as ''Silent Cal,'' a ''tight-mouthed Puritan with a constricted heart.''

All propaganda, the Cal-revisionists cry. Well, mostly propaganda anyway.

Throwing New England understatement to the March winds, a Vermont historian, Charles Morrissey, contends that Coolidge ''had many more gifts of communication than is commonly realized.''

Yup. A-yuh. Mebbe.

Certainly nobody could be as dangerously dull as Cal was supposed to be. The anti-myth began with his appearance. The consensus held that Coolidge was ''the most insignificant-looking man ever seen in the presidential chair.'' But should that have weighed quite so heavily against a man who followed that most deceptively presidential-looking of presidents, Warren Gamaliel Harding? Nope. No siree.

On the score of charm, Coolidge counted himself fortunate to escape with ratings like ''wooden'' and ''graceless.'' Little allowance was made for the fact that in the best New England circles charm is frowned upon as an illegal weapon, just this side of a handgun. Cal did not choose to be charming, any more than he chose to run.

Then there is the matter of the non-silver tongue. ''The business of America is business'' - perhaps Coolidge's most famous line - hardly carries the ring of the Gettysburg address. But the revisionists submit a brief moment when the granite cracked and there burst forth a ''shy, imprisoned soul,'' as the journalist William Allen White put it. The occasion was an impromptu speech Coolidge delivered at the train station in Bennington, Vt., after witnessing the ravages of a flood.

''Vermont is a state I love,'' he began. ''I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killingon, Mansfield, and Equinox without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me.

''I love Vermont . . . most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others.

''If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of the brave little state of Vermont.''

You can hardly wave a flag better than that.

White, a country boy from Kansas, thought Coolidge was disparaged because he was the first real country boy in the White House since Garfield. The city slickers of politics did not know what to make of a fellow who set a rocking chair on the White House front porch and walked the corridors with a yellow tabby cat on his shoulder, while maintaining a small zoo of dogs and birds, plus a pet raccoon.

When Coolidge first entered the White House, he told the domestic staff, ''I want things as they used to be - before!'' and by ''before'' he may well have been thinking of Andrew Jackson.

''It can hardly be said that Calvin Coolidge had much to do with the 20th century,'' the witty Gamaliel Bradford once observed. Yet, a half-century later, this does not sound like the supreme insult.

His first morning in the White House, Coolidge sat down at his desk at 6:30 and wrote a letter to a shoemaker back home, an old friend with a Yankee philosopher's bent:

My Dear Mr. Lucey:

Not often do I see you or write to you, but I want you to know that if it were not for you I should not be here. And I want to tell you how much I love you. Do not work too much now and try to enjoy yourself. . . .

Yours sincerely,

Calvin Coolidge

It's terribly unfair - and inaccurate - that only the people with the gracefully moving speeches and the quick hot tears in their eyes and compassion at the pitch of charm get recognized as Warm-and-Caring Human Beings. This brief , unmistakably heartfelt note ought to amend the record in behalf of all those who are unjustly called cold fish, including ''Silent Cal.''

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