On this day, 76 years ago, Calvin Coolidge died at the age of 60. Shortly before his life ended and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt began, Coolidge reportedly told a friend, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”
If Coolidge felt out of step in the Era of Roosevelt, he would have been a truly lost soul in the coming Age of Obama.
We are entering a time when the American president is simultaneously the sole arbiter of good and bad in the universe, a fashion plate, a paparazzi-attracting celebrity and a pop art icon. His face graces public transit tickets. Schoolchildren numbly chant his campaign slogans. The notion that a simple and shy New Englander such as Coolidge could ever occupy today’s White House is absurd.
Though he was simple by our modern presidential standards, there was nothing simplistic about his life or career. For all his reserve and minimalism, Coolidge was an extremely skilled and ambitious politician. From city solicitor to the state house of representatives, to mayor to the state senate to lieutenant governor and then governor and then vice president and president, he ran for office 19 times and lost only one election in his life.
He was a shrewd manipulator of broadcast radio and the photo-op. Versed in Latin and a student of Cicero, Coolidge wrote his own speeches without the assistance or aid of bright young staffers. Those who have read his autobiography (which he penned after his presidency) are aware of his graceful writing and penchant for moving introspection.
His rearing in rural Vermont imparted in the future president the values of thrift (he never owned a car or even a house until after his presidency), a disdain for his era’s version of political celebrity. (“We need more of the Office Desk and less of the Show Window in politics. Let men in office substitute the midnight oil for the limelight,” he once said.) And strikingly to us in today’s era of the superstar chief executive and the revived hyperactive federal government, Coolidge understood that there are some things the government and its chief executive are not capable of doing. He considered the Constitution a limiting document to be adhered to, not adjusted.
Today, the faithful prepare to flock to the nation’s capital to participate in what increasingly seems like a coronation. Simultaneously, train trips are being planned and an ancient bible is being brought out, rather immodestly, to remind us of the supposedly uncanny similarities between Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. Before the president-elect takes the oath of office in front a crowd of millions, it is worth remembering Coolidge’s own assumption of the presidency. When news of President Warren G. Harding’s death reached Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Vice President Coolidge, out of necessity, was administered the oath of office by his father, at the family homestead, using a family bible by the flickering light of an oil lamp.
Coolidge took that oath and assumed the presidency without promises to heal the soul of the country, change the world, or make loaves and fish magically appear. Instead, when asked for his thoughts on assuming the presidency, Coolidge simply replied, “I think I can swing it.”
And despite the opinions of New Deal historians, swing it he did. A year after Harding’s death Coolidge was elected president in his own right by a landslide. He spent the next four years fulfilling his duty as he believed the founders had envisioned — cutting taxes, resisting and vetoing new spending, and generally minding his own business while presiding over a time of great prosperity.
He had no interest in saving or rescuing the American people — he possessed, what is today, an uncommon faith they could take care of that themselves.
Coolidge could have easily won a second full term in 1928 — a feat that, at the time, would have eventually made him the longest serving president in U.S. history. Instead, he willingly let go of the reins of power. Far from a messiah or a savior, he returned from whence he had come: “We draw our Presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again,” he reasoned.
Today Coolidge lies buried in a tiny Vermont village just a short distance from the house where he was born and raised. A humble headstone marks his final resting place; the word “president” is nowhere to be found on the simple marker. On the occasion of Coolidge’s death, H.L. Mencken said, “Should the day ever dawn, when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Calvin’s bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.” Given the results of our recent election, the arrival of that day seems unlikely.
Indeed, Coolidge’s qualities — thrift, recognition of the limits of government’s responsibilities and capabilities, and presidential modesty seem positively antiquated today. This type of man could never be president in the 21st century. Yet, that does not mean that he cannot continue to inspire those who greet the coming epoch with more than a bit of skepticism.
No matter the passage of time or the changes to our government and political system, 76 years after his death, Coolidge’s ideals and beliefs still ring true.