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Jewish World Review / August 4, 1998 / 12 Menachem-Av, 5758

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas In search of an unstained president

PLYMOUTH NOTCH, Vt. -- Seventy-five years ago in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 3, following the death of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president of the United States by his father, a notary public, on the tiny family farm.

Recently, a four-day celebration of Coolidge was held in Boston, where he served as a legislator, lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts, and in the Vermont hamlet he called home. There is much to reconsider and learn from a man who is often misquoted by those who have read only historians and not his actual words. Two timely biographies by more objective historians Robert Ferrell and Robert Sobel take aim at the misconceptions and misperceptions surrounding Coolidge.

Not only does the 30th president have much to teach modern politicians and citizens about the role and cost of government (he cut taxes four times and reduced the national debt by one-third while maintaining a surplus every year in office), we might consider the unity of his public and private character, which led to an administration and life unstained by scandal.

In his 1940 book on Coolidge, Claude Feuss wrote of the period immediately after Harding, "... the United States was not looking for either heroism or romanticism. What it wanted was plain ordinary common sense. Calvin Coolidge had character -- and in the long run character outlasts what is temporarily spectacular."

Coolidge said much the same in his autobiography: "... unless men live right they die. Things are so ordered in this world that those who violate its laws cannot escape the penalty. Nature is inexorable. If men do not follow the truth they cannot live."

The Rutland Daily Herald editorialized last Saturday: "He carried with him into the larger world values of integrity, honesty and simplicity ...." That style, noted the editorial, is "in sharp contrast to the confessional and sentimental styles of the 1990s. (Coolidge) does not shy from revealing the passions and griefs of his life, but he maintains dignity and humor through understatement and economy of words."

As he left office on March 1, 1929, the New York Times editorialized about "Coolidge's rugged integrity .... While the country was left shuddering and ashamed by the revelations of corruption under President Harding, it turned with relief and confidence to the unchallenged simplicity and purity of life which, both official and private, was going on in the White House. Mr. Coolidge had such a shield in his demonstrated character that political arrows fell from it blunted and broken" (italics mine). Is there any Coolidge-like politician out there today who might pick up the pieces from the shambles the current president is making of the office?

Robert Sobel offers this quote from Democrat Al Smith as the ultimate accolade to Coolidge: "His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history, and to afford in a time of extravagance and waste a shining public example of the simple and honest virtues which came down to him from his New England ancestors. These are no small achievements, and history will not forget them."

Of himself, Coolidge modestly said: "It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions."

Silent Cal? Hardly. Here was a man who spoke only when he had something to say. And he had plenty to say that was good and even funny if one understands the reserved humor of Vermont. We could do much worse than to have a principled man like Calvin Coolidge in the White House today, which is precisely what we are doing -- a lot worse.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.