Calvin Coolidge: Still Dead

“Mind if I sneak in here?” The voice on the Thursday afternoon box-lunch line was eerily familiar, a half-forgotten echo from the distant past. Chatterbox turned to find himself facing a rested and ready Michael Dukakis, preternaturally unchanged from a decade ago, albeit shorter than a presidential nominee ever had a right to be. The Duke’s presence at the Kennedy Library in Boston was no more peculiar than the event that he was attending: a conference to reassess the historical legacy of–believe it or not–Calvin Coolidge.

Chatterbox, in a confession that veers close to heresy, had become bored with the breathless Washington speculation over semen- stained dresses. That’s why he was intrigued with this unlikely pageant of historical revisionism. If Coolidge’s reputation could be exhumed from the dustbin of history, who would be next? Franklin Pierce? Warren Harding? Curtis LeMay? Would scholars someday decide that Richard Nixon had the right idea when he ordered the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist? As for Bill Clinton, would historians eventually conclude that sex with a White House intern was merely a new-age management technique to lift the morale of dedicated presidential staffers?

Judging from the early sessions of the Coolidge love-in, our 30th president is still a long way from Mt. Rushmore. Granted, Sheldon Stern, the Kennedy Library historian who organized the conference, had a point when he contended that Coolidge is “one of the most overlooked and misunderstood of the American presidents.” Speaker after speaker gleefully pointed out that Coolidge’s famous dictum (“The business of America is business”) was grotesquely yanked out of context. Historian Richard Norton Smith argued in a paper presented at the conference, that “over the years Coolidge developed the silent act as a running joke.” In fact, as Silent Cal biographer Robert Ferrell pointed out, many of the stories about Coolidge were apocryphal. They were old-time gags about taciturn Vermonters updated with Coolidge’s name attached, much like current malapropisms are now automatically attributed to Yogi Berra.

Okay, Coolidge was sadly misunderstood, but that still leaves him devoid of great deeds. What then accounts for this sudden orgy of Coolidge boosterism? The peg for the conference was that August 3 will mark the 75th anniversary of Coolidge taking the oath of office from his father, a notary, in the gas-lit family farm house in Plymouth Corner, Vermont. But Chatterbox fails to recall a similar celebration in 1976 honoring an infinitely more significant accidental president, Teddy Roosevelt. Could it be that the public tide against White House activism has grown so extreme that all do- nothing presidents will now be lionized? Will the apogee of the American republic soon become William Henry Harrison’s 30 days in office? Ronald Reagan’s embrace of Coolidge as a role model clearly helped inspire the current iconography. Right-wing columnist Robert Novak, an unlikely Coolidge scholar, showed up to argue that Silent Cal was “the father of supply-side economics.” That’s part of the allure of long-dead presidents–a little alchemy with quotes can turn the Coolidge into the progenitor of Reagan’s deficits.

It was Dukakis, who had studiously boned up on Coolidge’s record in Massachusetts politics, who offered the best refutation of Novak’s exaggerated claims. “Coolidge’s frugality and his hatred of waste were legendary,” the forgotten man of Democratic politics declared. “He was no anti-taxer–modern Republican take note.” What animated Dukakis, as he explained in strange bedfellow fashion, were the parallels between his own career and Coolidge’s. After a long apprenticeship in state politics, they both achieved happiness as Massachusetts governor, only to be dismally depressed when they finally reached center stage in national politics. With a lingering hint of pain in his voice, Dukakis said, “It is all too true that one’s popularity as a political figure is a very fragile thing indeed.”

Okay, Mike, we feel your pain. You get dissed at Democratic conventions and Dorothy Parker still summed up Coolidge best when she cracked, on being told of the ex-president’s death in 1933, “How can they tell?” But as the Coolidge conference proved, no broken reputation is so fragile that historians won’t laboriously try to glue the pieces back together. Personally, Chatterbox can’t wait to see how the Clinton Library decides to display Monica’s splattered black cocktail dress.

–Walter Shapiro