Politics & Prose December 2003

President Coolidge's Burden

A recent biography places Coolidge's failed presidency in the context of the deep depression he fell into after the death of his son

Psychohistory has tended to be psychoanalytical history, the application of Freudian concepts to historical figures. This approach has come under fire for reducing motives to drives and the real conflicts of history to intrapsychic conflicts among the holy trinity of ego, id, and superego. Fifty years ago psychoanalytic theory and therapy dominated the culture. No more. The revolution in American psychiatry from the Freudian to the medical paradigm has given historians the basis for a fresh approach to psychology. Instead of focusing on posited conflicts between instinct and repression, they now tend to examine observable psychiatric illness rooted in childhood events. Depression may be less interesting than neurosis, but its symptoms are more open to empirical validation. And whereas neurosis is rarely disabling, depression stops you cold.

It stopped Calvin Coolidge cold. As Robert E. Gilbert shows in his recent psychiatric biography, The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression, Coolidge ceased to function as President after the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin Jr.

On the afternoon of June 30, 1924, Calvin and his older brother, John, played several sets of tennis with the two White House doctors; Tuesday, they played again, and agreed to play once more on Wednesday. Calvin Jr. did not show up for the Wednesday match. He was in bed with a temperature. He had not worn socks to play tennis, and had developed a blister on one of his toes. The doctors discovered it too late to stop the systemic infection that, five days later, killed him. As he was dying, his father repeatedly pressed a locket into his hand until his son fell into a coma and could no longer grip it. "It contained a photograph of [the President's] mother and a lock of her hair," Gilbert writes, "so similar to young Calvin's in color and texture."

That locket closed a circle of loss and grief: when Calvin was twelve Victoria Coolidge, thirty-nine, died of tuberculosis at their Plymouth Notch, Vermont home. "Mother wants to see you both before she dies," his father, John Coolidge, told him and his younger sister, Abbie. "Hurry now and remember no crying. Not now, you're almost a man." In his 1929 Autobiography Calvin Coolidge wrote: "The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again." Five years later, Abbie, to whom Calvin was especially close, died, probably of appendicitis, with her brother by her side. Calvin suppressed his emotions to withstand these losses, which left him vulnerable to major depression after his son's death. "The loss of a child often reactivates earlier losses suffered by the parents," Gilbert observes, "and precipitates a global reaction encompassing virtually every area of life."

That describes the next four years of the Coolidge presidency. Calvin Coolidge displayed all ten of the symptoms listed by the American Psychiatric Association as evidence of major depression. Gilbert lists them, and so will I. Depression is scandalously under-diagnosed and undertreated. Perhaps seeing this list will encourage some readers to seek help—and, unlike in Coolidge's time, psycho-pharmacological help is available.

If, for a period of two weeks or more, your mood is depressed and you take little pleasure in your activities, and you notice any four of the following symptoms—loss of appetite or weight; insomnia or hypersomnia; agitation or inability to sit still; slowed speech or reluctance to speak at all; decreased energy; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; difficulty in thinking, concentrating, or deciding; and recurrent thoughts of death—then you are suffering a "Major Depressive Episode" which, untreated, can lead to death. Thirty-thousand Americans commit suicide every year, and either biological or event-based psychological depression is present in nearly every case. A sufferer from major depression denying himself medicine that can alleviate his symptoms in order to "tough it out" is like a diabetic denying himself insulin to improve his moral character. It is that absurd—and tragic.

When, as Vice President, Coolidge assumed the presidency after Warren Harding's death in the summer of 1923, "he reveled in his success." According to an associate, "the President would almost tiptoe around, touching things and half-smiling to himself." He came to see Calvin Jr.'s death as a punishment for the enjoyment he took in the perks and pomp of office, writing in his Autobiography, "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House."

A heavy sleeper before, after Calvin's death Coolidge slept even more. He went to bed at 10, rose at 9 or, if earlier, took a nap before lunch. He napped between two and four hours every afternoon. Altogether, this man who had been famous for his diligence now worked no more than four hours a day.

Following Woodrow Wilson's stroke, in 1919, his wife, Edith, and the White House doctor, Cary Grayson, ran the government. The incapacitated Coolidge turned the reins over to his wife, his Cabinet, and Congress. Whereas previously, whether as mayor, Massachusetts senate president, governor, or President, he had not hesitated to use the powers of office, "After July 1924, he deferred to Congress, refused to assist members of his administration in making decisions, hid behind the separation of powers principle as a way of avoiding involvement with the independent regulatory commissions, shied away from foreign policy entanglements, and declined to use his powers as president to achieve his goals." Mrs. Coolidge "bore 85 per cent of the burdens of office."

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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