The Genius of the Average: Calvin Coolidge
BY GAMALIEL BRADFORD
IT is an immense advantage to a public man to have a reputation for silence, and the dangers of free speech to a politician have been often enough demonstrated. The Blaines, the Roosevelts, the Gladstones, have a glorious gift with the tongue, but it sometimes gets them into trouble. The Washingtons, the Clevelands, the Coolidges, thrive by silence. For the silence always suggests mystery and vast uncomprehended intellectual depths, which may be there and may not.
Calvin Coolidge was born on the fourth of July, 1872, in the little mountain village of Plymouth, Vermont. His family on both sides struck its roots right down into the heart of New England. There was the New England habit of labor, the sturdy endurance of hardship and privation, the thrift, the self-denial, the dominating conscience, the instinctive sense that all amusement was frivolous, if not dangerous. Calvin had a simple, solid education, by which he profited moderately. He went to Amherst College, studied and practised law in an office in Northampton, drifted into politics, and swept up steadily through all the political degrees from the lowest to the highest. One never tires of dwelling on the tremendous contrast between the primitive parlor in the New England farmhouse in which, by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, the father administered to the son the presidential oath, and the palatial splendor of the residence of the greatest ruler in the world. No doubt the contrast has been always present to Mr. Coolidge himself and has always filled him with astonishment.
It cannot be said of course that this extraordinary career has been built entirely on silence. Coolidge has plenty of words at his command when they are called for. His speeches and messages show an abundant and sometimes wearisome fluency. He can say what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. But he also keeps still when he has nothing to say, and most of us would find that this left a terrible void in our habits of utterance. Furthermore, he has what has justly been called a significant silence. His complete absence of speech often suggests more than others’ rippling multiplicity of words. And though no doubt Coolidge has sometimes had occasion to deplore his lack of small talk, he is well aware of the advantage that the habit of silence gives him, appreciates it, develops it, and has at times insisted on it with great effect. ‘I have never been hurt by anything I did n’t say,’ he once observed.
Copyright 1929, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
I have long studied the photographic portrayals of Coolidge’s face, though I have never seen the reality. Even with the utmost sympathy of contemplation, it is hard to find power in it. There is no suggestion of quick and eager response. It is a pinched, drawn face, certainly not hard, but anxious, the face of a man perpetually confronted by a problem a little too big for him. One thing may be said — the face has New England written all over it. It seems to me at moments that I detect some shade of the Indian strain of ancestry which biographers generally pass over, but which Mr. Coolidge himself frankly admits. The truth is, there was a strange affinity in some respects between the early Puritans and their Indian neighbors. There was the same silence, the same stoicism, the same grim and bare acceptance of hard reality. Indian or not, there is no question but that Mr. Coolidge sums up in himself these marked qualities of New England inheritance. And it seems a strange thing that, when the country as a whole has outgrown New England, has taken to laughing at it or forgetting it, an unexpected turn of fortune should have made not only a son of New England but an absolute incarnation of New England the ruler over all America.
It is extremely difficult to trace and analyze the finer currents and movements of intellectual and spiritual life under this habitual aloofness and remoteness; but the broader outlines may be laid down without much trouble.
Coolidge’s intellectual training was on the whole ample and varied. The teaching in the better country academies fifty years ago was not very broad, but it was substantial. At Amherst he came into contact with men of real originality and power and he responded to those who gave the historical and human suggestion, which was the thing that chiefly appealed to him. He was not especially concerned with facts of science or achievements of literature. But the working of human nature in history and government meant something to him, and whatever he acquired about it he instinctively stored away for future use.
It does not appear that he read much for pleasure. Novels never appealed to him at any stage of his career. He read extensively and in earlier years a considerable variety, but he probably read slowly, so that he did not cover much ground in proportion to the time spent; and as years went on, the reading was almost entirely restricted to books of history and government. He is supposed to have studied philosophy assiduously with Garman at Amherst. Garman is said to have taught him and others a remorseless regard for truth and a habit of thinking things through to the end. But I see no signs anywhere of any profound philosophical training or activity.
If Coolidge did not spend much energy on speculative scientific or philosophical thinking, his mental processes were incessantly active on his own peculiar business. One who had observed him closely and carefully states this with vigor and force: ‘The universal testimony of those who know is that he is always thinking. Not mind-wandering, casual consciousness, but hard, disciplined, purposeful thinking upon his problems. He is, they say, forever thinking ahead. That is why he is never hurried, never caught off his guard, never excited when the moment for decision and action comes.’ Obviously this constant mental activity is in no way incompatible with difficulty and slowness of thought; rather it may well be a result of such conditions. But it is an undeniable characteristic of Coolidge the politician. When any situation is brought before him he works it out to the very bottom, so far as his comprehension goes, and with a minuteness of small detail sometimes astonishing to those who know both him and the subject best.
On the other hand, though Coolidge’s political thinking is intense and continuous, when it comes to a question of the abstract quality of that thinking the judgment will be somewhat different. In his early days as legislator he seems to have been attracted by various reforming tendencies, but as time went on he settled more and more into a conservative attitude and became above all the proclaimer of the necessity and desirability of keeping things as they are. His political philosophy is that of the mid-nineteenth century, the optimistic ideal of democracy as the final solution of all problems and cure for all evils. If a few small evils happen not to be cured, you must shut your eyes for the time and trust in Providence. There may be still something to be urged for this theory, but it can hardly be said to denote advanced thinking from the twentieth-century point of view. It can hardly be said that Coolidge has much to do with the twentieth century.
What is interesting about Coolidge’s political ideas is not only the ideas themselves, but his gift of expressing them, which is said to be one of the few things on which he prides himself. He has a singular felicitous faculty of coining brief, telling, energetic phrases that take hold of men’s minds and stay in them. The sentence addressed to Gompers after the Police Strike, ‘There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,’ will not soon fade out of American history. There are plenty of others equally notable. Such things are not only effective phrases; they bear the impress of honest, square thinking.
Whether it was his thoughts that did it or his words, there can be no doubt about the extraordinary, steady, unbroken rapidity of Coolidge’s political progress. He once lost a contest for School Committee. Otherwise the voters have given him whatever he asked for, and almost without his asking. Beginning with minor municipal offices in Northampton, he drifted into the State legislature, as it seemed a hopelessly rural specimen. But he made his way, just by sheer faithful work. He went back to be Mayor of Northampton. Then he went to the State Senate, became its President, slipped into the Lieutenant Governorship. A little later, as Governor, the Police Strike gave him nation-wide prominence. His supporters urged him for the Presidency, but the Senatorial clique put in Harding instead, and it was left for an unexpected reaction of accident and weariness to land the Massachusetts man in the Vice Presidency. Two years later Harding’s death advanced him to the highest office in the country. People smiled, and said, ‘That man — President? Not for more than two years at any rate.’ At the end of the two years an overwhelming vote gave him the office again, and it seems highly probable that he might have had it a third time, if he had so wished.
It is an interesting question how much of definite planning, of long ambition, went into the shaping and carrying out of this career. Cooiidge’s ardent admirers of course insist, as always, that he had no personal ambition, but was moved solely by the desire to do his duty and be useful. There are occasional contradictions to this view, but generally speaking even close observers do not seem to detect anything but an attentive and watchful consideration of whatever opportunity might throw in his way and a most zealous and industrious habit of profiting by it.
Nor is Coolidge himself any more ready to admit long ambition than are his admirers to admit it for him The definite and repeated refusals to neglect any immediate duty for the sake of future advancement may of course be easily reconciled with ambition and may even be regarded as a farsighted and most politic manifestation of it. But constant references in talk, in his speeches, and in his autobiographical writing seem to indicate that Coolidge never looked forward very elaborately to a cloudy ultimate goal of his career, but took each step as it came, and was long inclined to bound his hopes with rather narrow possibilities, political, or even almost locally legal.
And when he had got to the top, how much did he enjoy it? There are signs, little indications and gleams, scattered everywhere, for those who know how to read, showing that he was well aware of the dignity and the grandeur and the far-reaching power of his office. There are shy and subtle touches, as in his speech to the Boy Scouts: ‘I am thrilled at the thought, of my audience to-night, for I never address boys without thinking, among them may be a boy who will sit in the White House.’ Yet, along with the sense of greatness, there was always the sense of the burden and the responsibility: ‘It costs a great deal to be President.’
The truth is, it was not in his temperament to enjoy glory or anything else. That temperament was the inherited, cumulative, aggravated temperament of New England, in which the sense of duty is the overriding force and an uneasy conscience always suggests that we are not in this world mainly to have a good time, or even to have a good time at all, but for some higher purpose. Always there is that New England face, with all its subtle implications, and the face seems peculiarly out of keeping with merrymaking or any of the riot of set publicity, most of all with the ludicrously inappropriate decorations which were resorted to in Cooiidge’s Western surroundings. There is the garish cowboy rig, and in the midst of it the chilly Vermont countenance, wondering painfully and wearily what it was all about. These people wore not working: why should anybody want to do anything but work?
He never did, and here is the secret of his whole existence: work, unceasing, unresting, perpetual work, not so much for what was actually accomplished, but for the habit of work itself. In all the accounts of him this habit of work is emphasized, from boyhood up. Undeniably the insistence on such a very virtuous practice of industry grows wearisome, not to say even Weemsish, and one begins to speculate as to whether Coolidge was really such a hopeless prig as the Father of his Country was represented to our youth. The few stories of boyish pranks which relieve this strain — the theft of the cannon from an opposing local faction, the introduction of a donkey into forbidden precincts — are refreshing and comforting. But there is precious little of this sort of thing. The sports and amusements of boys seem to have had small appeal for the incipient Puritan, and the sports of men had even less. He did like the circus and still does. But his father said of him as a child that he did not care for play, and he himself repeatedly admits the same thing with perfect frankness. If in later years he has taken to fishing, it would seem to be more for the gesture than for the pleasure. Certainly there is none of the passion that Grover Cleveland threw into it.
Nor does it appear that artistic, æsthetic interests and distractions have much more allurement for Coolidge than social pursuits and amusements. There is no evidence whatever that music has ever stirred or stimulated him, unless that he used to play the bones in a minstrel show. The theatre seems to be null. Painting does not count for much more, though there is one curious discussion of it which we will consider in a moment. Coolidge’s admirers enlarge upon his love for nature. Unquestionably both the grim and the gracious aspects of the Vermont woodland landscape impressed their influence on that solitary and introverted boyhood, but the nature passages in Coolidge’s writings seem to me thoroughly artificial and superficial, the utterance of a man who is trying to say what he ought to feel rather than what he actually felt. It is said that, though Coolidge is a great walker, he never likes to walk alone — observes, with a curious touch, that walking alone gives him a feeling which he refers to as ‘a sort of naked feeling.’ The real lover of nature, like any other lover, wants to be alone with the object of his affections.
Again, with poetry. Coolidgc tells us, and others tell us, that at times he has read a good deal of it. But the reading appears to have been largely confined to Milton, Gray, and, above all, Longfellow and Whittier. In other words, the appreciation of the poets is mainly intellectual and moral. And the same is true of the curious discussion of painting referred to above. When the journalist, Beverley Nichols, tried to get an interview from the President, he did not succeed in starting him till modern painting was introduced. Then Coolidge gave his opinions on an exhibition at Pittsburgh, and gave them with notable clarity and originality: ‘As I looked at those pictures, I felt that I could see through them, into the minds of the nations which had created them. I could see the torment out of which they had been born. If the nation’s psychology was still diseased, so was its art. The traces of the neurosis were unmistakable. If, on the other hand, the nation was on the road to recovery, if its people were rediscovering the happiness which they had lost, the story was told in the picture too. . . . The only respect in which I would differ from you is that I observed as much evidence of recovery as of sickness.’ Here again, you see, the interest, the impression, is wholly intellectual and moral. The purely æsthetic side does not appear at all.
So, when we dissect and analyze Coolidge’s intellectual and spiritual life, we find the residuum to be simply an appalling, enthralling habit of work. The curious thing is that he does not seem really to enjoy even work. There are immense workers in whom the pure love of their occupation is so engrossing that it fills all their waking hours and makes every distraction seem dull and unprofitable merely by comparison. There is no suggestion of this state of mind in Coolidge. He works because he always worked, because his father and his grandfather worked before him and the instinct is in his blood; he works because he cannot help it. It recalls the remark which has recently been attributed to Miss Fannie Hurst in regard to her literary pursuits: ‘It is not that I am happy when I am writing, it is only that I am unhappy when I am not writing.’
However this may be, it may safely be affirmed that the essence and the explanation of Calvin Coolidge is the rooted, dominating habit of unceasing, unquestioning, orderly, systematic labor.
The order and the system are just as marked in private life and domestic affairs as in public. The President kept a clean desk, but so did the Northampton lawyer, and the desk at home is just as clear. This is accomplished largely by an orderly and systematic arrangement of time. Every minute of White House time is naturally provided for, but here again the habit is constitutional and has always prevailed. As a careful recorder puts it: ‘The President practises the most profound reverence for the value of time that I have ever heard of. . . . His visitors waste little of his time. Per contra, he wastes none of his own by needless speech. The result is he has nearly all his time to himself.’
The same careful system is applied to matters of health, with excellent results, and again to matters of dress. Coolidge knows just what he wants to wear at each particular time, and if by any chance he fails to find it, there is trouble. One of the few recorded instances of his loss of temper is in regard to a mislaid overcoat, and such slight losses seem to spring more from infractions of order than from anything else. But, as one who knows him intimately remarked, you come to allow for these things when you understand the system of ‘ bitter self-control ’ under which the man habitually lives. Bitter self-control! Is it possible to sum up New England more neatly than that?
Nothing shows the habits of order more effectively than Coolidge’s dealings with money. It goes without saying that his temperament and his stern New England training gave him a caution and prudence in such matters which no opportunity and no abundance have ever shaken. It is not niggardliness or meanness. There is a perfect readiness to spend when there is a real object in spending. But the waste of pennies he could never get used to, never has. He has the only kind of thrift that really counts—the thrift that is an instinctive habit.
And it is hardly necessary to say that such an instinctive habit is of the utmost value to a great public official. It was carried into the practical administration of the national finances, and its value here is obvious and demonstrable, however judgments may sometimes have differed about the application. But the habit was even more valuable as an example to the American people in the huge orgy of regardless extravagance which the twentieth century in general initiated and which was so immensely augmented by the effects of the Great War. Here was a man who actually looked at a dollar before he threw it away, who actually hesitated to buy any luxury that was offered to him, merely because he did not know how he was going to pay for it. It was inconceivable, it was unbelievable. Yet this man had passed from nothing to the White House, and there might be good in his ideas after all.
Also, underneath the habitual thrift you must always recognize the strong, genuine vein of humanity in Coolidge which prompted his fine saying, ‘I am not trying to save money, I am trying to save people.’ The humanity seems to be always working, constantly, though covertly, in the money dealings as in other things. He was ready to pinch himself. He had no inclination to pinch others. In his law business he worked hard for his clients without much considering whether they could pay. When he was a legislator, his colleagues could get nothing out of him in words. They were often astonished to find that he had worked for their advantage when they were least aware of it. He kept up a quiet interest in the home people when he was away from them. One who had many letters from him says: ‘There is n’t a letter in there that is n’t packed with kindness, thoughtfulness, with messages to the home folks, and with numerous reminders of his strong affection for the people of these hills themselves. . . . Nobody could read these letters and think Calvin Coolidge a cold man.’
The curious mixture of native tenderness and bitter self-control hardened into a habit shows most intimately in the domestic relations and most of all in Coolidge’s relation to his father. They loved each other, they trusted each other, they admired each other. They expressed these things by little more than the ‘Ugh! ugh!’ of the Indian or the New Englander. On the other hand, when Coolidge comes to write of his mother, whom he lost so early, the habit of restraint makes the expression difficult and artificial, so that one quite understands the happy if harsh phrase of one of his critics who speaks of his ‘congealed sentimentality.’ When New England attempts sentiment at all, it is apt to be of the congealed order. With his stepmother, with whom his relations were largely practical if at the same time profoundly affectionate, it is quite different . It was not a question of words, but of actions, and his conduct toward her was admirable throughout. So in the minor domestic matters. The staff at the White House liked and respected him, even if they did not feel at ease with him, because he treated them as human beings. He treated animals like human beings, also, and his affection, his consideration, his thoughtfulness, for his dogs and cats and ail other live creatures afford the usual sure evidence of a fundamentally sympathetic heart.
The mixture of tenderness with an innate dread of showing it is naturally most of all manifest in the most intimate family connections. It is impossible to imagine Coolidge lavishing demonstrative affection upon his children. Yet it is clear enough that father and sons always loved, trusted, and understood each other, and when the younger boy, Calvin, was dying, it was his profound confidence in his father that kept him alive for some time after all hope was gone.
But when you have made long and careful study of statesmen’s wives, nothing can be more curious than the analysis of the relation between Calvin and Grace Coolidge. There is the intimate play of tender irony which is one of the abiding charms of conjugal existence. But underneath the surface playfulness there is the closest mutual understanding and the most perfect and most enduring interdependence. In this particular matrimonial example there is an extraordinary fullness of complementary quality, which again each perfectly understands and appreciates. Mrs. Coolidge likes, revels in, the social world, which her husband detests and avoids. He hates to talk — she loves it; and when she utters the superfluous she gives it a grace and charm which make it seem more indispensable than the necessary, as indeed no doubt it is.
When you follow the whole of Coolidge’s career, you cannot help feeling how invaluable that wife must have been at every step. Nor is this in any way discounted by Mrs. Coolidge’s own insistence that she never interferes in political matters. In some notable instances she professes to have been wholly without even such information as was supplied to comparative outsiders. All the same, you feel that she was at the heart of the whole movement of the President’s life, as was the case with the first Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and a hundred others whom you could name. The man would not have been what he was without the woman, and most of all precisely because of her infinite, exquisite tact in effacing herself.
The interesting thing about Coolidge in his larger human relations is the strange combination of remoteness, aloofness, reserve, with such vast contact with men and women of all sorts, and even the apparent need of such contact.
As to the remoteness there can be no question: it hits you in the face everywhere. The man is by nature evasive, elusive, shy. In his boyhood he kept by himself, accepted others when he had to, but did not seek them. A wellknown confession of his youth appears in a dozen more or less varying forms: ‘It’s always hard for me to meet people. As a boy I would shrink with fear if I heard strange voices in the home, and would sneak up the back stairs rather than meet them — I simply can’t get used to it.’ Thousands of New Englanders — and human beings — are made like that, but they do not usually work their way into the White House.
The evidence of others as to the reserve abundantly bears out Coolidge’s own. ‘The fact is,’ said Judge Field, ‘that Calvin is shy. He dislikes the limelight . He hates to have his picture taken. He is an extraordinarily shy man and always was. The only thing that overcomes his shyness is his work.’ And the general spiritual attitude is summed up in the comment of one who knew him well: ‘He is the loneliest man upon earth.’
The acme, the climax, of Coolidge’s remoteness and reserve, of his asocial quality, is indisputably his utter disregard of conversation as mankind in general practises it. There are men who cannot talk even when they wish to. Coolidge can talk freely enough, but talk for talk’s sake means nothing to him. If he wants to get information, he will pelt you, storm you, with a string of questions for half an hour on end. Then he has done with you, and you may go. The ordinary small talk of the world, its trivial gossip, drifts by him, slips over him, like the idle wind. He stands silent, apart, absorbed in his thoughts, and wonders how people can chatter so, and why they should.
The most extraordinary, the almost incredible, example of Coolidge’s conversational habits is the story told by a competent witness of his sending for a friend, apparently for conference. Thinking he was wanted for his counsel, the friend hastened to answer the summons. He was ushered in from the waiting room. ‘How d’ye do?’ said the President. ‘Sit down.’ The friend sat. The President sat — and looked out the window. After fifteen minutes of silence the friend rose to go. ‘Don’t go. Sit down,’ said the President. After twenty minutes more of silence the friend rose to go. ‘Don’t go; sit down,’ said the President. Another twenty minutes of silence. The friend arose: ‘I guess you did n’t want me for anything, so I ’ll be going.’ The President’s reply was: ‘Thank you for coming. I wanted to think.’ Coolidge is sometimes described as an average man, and so in a sense he is. The average man might like to behave in this fashion, but he rarely does.
The element of humor may be taken as a minor aspect of Coolidge’s conversational proclivities. Humor is sometimes denied him. And social laughter — laughter as a mere solvent, lubricant — he does not indulge in or require. But he has plenty of hard, dry, subtle wit, which may cause laughter in others, and innumerable instances of it are cited. Perhaps the best comment of all on the subject is Coolidge’s plaintive remark, ‘Whenever I do indulge my sense of humor, it always gets me into trouble.’
With these general social characteristics it is hardly to be expected that the loneliest man on earth should have many intimate friends. Evidently he has not, but those he has he clings to. The humble friends of his youth, like the Northampton cobbler, Lucey, remain his friends through everything. Perhaps it is better in the end not to have it said of you that you pick up endless acquaintances and throw them off when you have no more need of them, but rather that you ‘practically never lose a friend.’
Another phase of the human relations is the question how far the influence of others has figured and made itself felt in Coolidge’s life and character. Evidently some human contacts affected him profoundly, especially in early life. His father’s influence and example went deep. The teaching of the Amherst professors, notably Garman in philosophy, on which Coolidge himself enlarges so much, took a solid and enduring hold. But of influence in the sense of effecting immediate result there seems to have been remarkably little, early or late. Coolidge listened to what everybody had to say, and then took his own course. Above all, no human being could ever boast that he was the President’s accredited adviser or that a special line of action was suggested or initiated by him.
An equal curiosity attaches to the point of Coolidge’s influence over others, doubly curious because it seems as if he were the last man who would have anything of the sort. There was never what is called magnetism about him, the enthralling personal hold of a Blaine or a Roosevelt. There was nothing of the cordial, back-slapping, drinkpartaking politician, nothing whatever. Yet somehow he got the votes, somehow he got and held the confidence of the vast majority of the American people.
This was partly owing to his immense quiet observation of men, both individually and in masses. He saw everything and he remembered everything, at any rate everything that would serve his purpose. His judgment of men and their actions was not infallible, but it was keen, and it was always working. And on this judgment was founded an extraordinary political tact and skill. He knew what to say and do and just when to say it and do it. To be sure, he was cautious and deliberate in such action, and sometimes the extremity of caution exposed him to severe criticism, as with his apparent delay in the Police Strike, and again in getting rid of the dubious relics of the Harding Administration, and yet again as to the nomination in 1928. But even here good observers insist that the wisdom of his course was repeatedly justified by the event.
Finally, there is the question of how much Coolidge has really achieved politically. It must be admitted that he is not a great creative, constructive executive. He himself is said to have observed, in 1928, that it was now time for constructive statesmanship and that his own services had not been of this order and probably could not be. As I have indicated earlier, before the burden of direct governing had been laid upon him he showed a good deal of interest in progressive and for that day radical projects, and took hold of such things with the zeal and thoroughness that marked him in everything, so that he gained enduring credit with even labor leaders and radicals for fairness and honesty, as in the settlement of the Lawrence strike. But when he went into executive office he became more and more impressed with the immense importance of administration, and declared that it was imperative to give it a chance to catch up with legislation. And this idea seems to have possessed him more and more.
Is it not, after all, a wise and fruitful idea? Is not the failure in administration more than anything else responsible for the growing distrust of democracy everywhere? A hundred years ago it was assumed that the ballot would make over the world. The world has the ballot, and it needs making over more than ever. You have not only got to have the ballot, you have got to have some means of giving the will of the majority governmental effect — that is, you have got to have efficient administration. It is precisely the lack of this which has made parliamentarism a laughingstock everywhere. It was the lack of efficient administration that brought Italy to the benevolent despotism of Mussolini and Russia to the despotic benevolence of Lenin. In view of these things, perhaps, as time goes on, the teachings and the methods of Calvin Coolidge may not prove so futile after all.
There has been endless speculation as to the causes of Coolidge’s success. The astonishing contrast between the homely simplicity of the man and the swiftness and smoothness of his political progress makes such speculation inevitable. But his case is only a critical instance of the puzzles that attend practical success and above all political success in general. Why is it that again and again we see brains, power, natural gifts, and even genius, apparently slighted, disregarded, and pushed into a corner, while complacent mediocrity makes its way to the top almost without effort? Sometimes it almost seems as if leaders succeed quite as much by what they have not as by what they have, and one may meditate long and deeply on Dr. Johnson’s remark that ‘men please more upon the whole by negative qualities than by positive.’ The more one studies Coolidge, however, the more one comes to feel the truth of the excellent prize editorial by Mr. Frank W. Buxton, on ‘What Made Cahin Coolidge,’ to the effect that while many interesting persons and many strange chances may have had a hand in Coolidge’s advancement, the main figure in that advancement was Calvin Coolidge himself.
Most of all what, has made Calvin Coolidge is the fact that he is an average man appealing to average men. The average man has the votes, and if you win him the votes will come to you. Perhaps the best way to win him is to make him feel that you are altogether different, but assuredly the next best is to make him feel that you are exactly the same. The common people early came to see in Coolidge one of themselves. They saw a man with their traits, their habits, their interests, their social surroundings, and this man kept all these things unaltered in his steady progress from the bottom to the top. Observing this, the average man said: ‘Here is one just like me, who has made his way to the White House. It is immensely agreeable, flattering, encouraging; let us keep him there.’
Moreover, as has been aptly suggested, the average American saw in Coolidge just the virtues that were supposed to constitute the American ideal and supposed to have made America. Coolidge incarnated thrift, self-denial, plain and simple living, straightforward, hard-headed honesty. The average American had heard that his fathers had these virtues and had made a great nation by means of them. He saw with a sigh that he had not much taste for them himself, and that his children had much less than he; but there was all the more reason why he should turn to a President who embodied them completely.
In Heine’s study of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra there is a brilliant portrayal of the contrast between the dark, solemn, austere, mysterious, dreary land of Egypt and the gay, frivolous, trifling Parisian harlot who ruled over it. It would be possible to make an equally effective contrast between the mad, hurrying, chattering, extravagant, self-indulgent harlotry of twentiethcentury America and the grave, silent, stern, narrow, uncomprehending New England Puritanism of Calvin Coolidge. And Heine caps his climax with the exquisite comment, ‘Wie witzig ist Gott!’
Not the least interesting question that arises in connection with this long and complicated career is the question just how far Coolidge analyzes and understands himself. There may of course be depths of self-interrogation and self-study which are not apparent, but such depths are not indicated or even suggested in any written or reported words that have come under my eye. Certainly anyone who hopes to find them in the autobiography written at the instance of the popular magazines will be woefully disappointed, for a more unrevealing document has rarely been produced with any such pretension. Nine tenths of it is a rehearsal of surface facts easily accessible elsewhere and the remainder, instead of being an honest search into the man’s own character and motives, is merely an effort to portray such a boyhood and manhood as a future President ought to be expected to have. The whole story is in the main a compound of superficial, trivial narrative and the congealed sentimentality already suggested. Every word of it shows the deadly influence of the popular magazine, and the only question is whether the writer is trying desperately to write down to that level or whether the level is one that comes natural to him, either alternative being sufficiently unpleasant.
I find little evidence in Coolidge anywhere of an abstract general interest in the analysis of human motives. Now and then there is an interesting and suggestive touch, as in the remark in the autobiography, ‘In public life it is sometimes necessary in order to appear really natural to be actually artificial,’ or the still more striking comment on the political mind. But usually the emphasis is placed rather upon action than upon motive, and the undeniably acute judgment of men seems to be more a matter of instinct than of elaborate analysis: perhaps it is all the more practically valuable on that account.
So, it is not to be expected that one who does not analyze others should analyze himself, and such analysis seems to be conspicuously lacking in Coolidge. We have already seen his attitude toward his own ambition. If he has been actuated by long dreams and vast desires and purposes, he is not himself aware of it, or in such comment as he does make disclaims it industriously. There is no clear attempt to analyze his own abilities, or the nature or the working of them. There is an apparently genuine modesty in regard to them, and especially a naïve astonishment that he could have got so far with any powers that he knows of: that is all. On the other hand, there is no particular consciousness of weakness or defect. I have referred to the admission of a lack of constructive statesmanship, but in regard to neither this nor any other insufficiency does there seem to be any marked appreciation of being inadequate to any office that may come to him. Fate or some higher power has put him in these places; it is the affair of the same higher power to see that he is equal to them. And a similar complacency shows in his curious, at any rate apparent, indifference to criticism. Every President is abused with a variety and virulence of savage attack which it would seem as if no sensitive spirit could endure, and even some very tough spirits have shriveled and withered under it. It appears to have little effect on Calvin Coolidge. He is doing his best, and no man can do more: why should he care?
In short, the sense of occasional failure, of discouragement, of disappointment, which inevitably comes with imaginative obsession by a high ideal, seems to be altogether absent from Coolidge’s make-up. The highs and lows of life are taken as they come, without disturbance of sleep or digestion. There is not one trace or hint of that fascinating, inexplicable, haunting melancholy which makes the distinction of Abraham Lincoln, though Coolidge and Lincoln have been often compared. In one of the most striking passages of Renan’s history he cuts down to the root of such melancholy: ‘A trait which characterizes great men of European stock,’ he says, ‘is that at moments they become followers of Epicurus; they are overcome with dissatisfaction and disgust when they are toiling with the utmost ardor, and after they have succeeded they doubt whether the cause they have labored for was worth so many sacrifices.’ There is nothing of this vague depression in Coolidge, nothing of such spiritual reaction and recoil. Instead, there is a persistent, insistent, certainly not buoyant, but aggressive and almost tediously reiterated optimism, which seems partly physical in its nature, and which always suggests a more or less conventional and traditional habit and attitude of mind.
We have already observed such a conventional attitude in Coolidge’s political thinking. It is even more marked and obvious in his thinking on religious matters. And his preoccupation with such matters is everywhere prominent. Turn over his writings and speeches, and on page after page you will come across a religious allusion of some kind. America is under the special protection of divine power. Democracy is divinely ordained for the salvation of mankind, and all the forces of the universe are working with it. Perhaps no passage better sums up the whole attitude than a paragraph from the Boy Scout address : ‘It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. . . . We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.’
It is impossible to question the absolute sincerity and profound conviction of this religious attitude. It is not only believed but lived, and no man ever carried his convictions into his life with more fervent and reverent piety than Calvin Coolidge. But the attitude is simply that of the Christian, not to say Fundamentalist, orthodoxy of the middle nineteenth century, or earlier. It is the unshaken belief in an anthropomorphic God, who guides the destinies of nations and also the petty affairs of individuals, and to whom it is of real importance what you or I or Calvin Coolidge may do or not do. Behind such a deity is a future, perhaps unending, existence, in which all the inequalities of this world, riches and poverty, brains and dullness, will be amply adjusted and compensated, and in which again you, and I, and Calvin Coolidge will richly receive the reward of all our labor and endurance here.
Now this matter of religion, with Calvin Coolidge, is not a side issue. It is vital. On the theological fabric outlined above hangs the whole tissue and scheme of the Coolidge type of thinking and living — political, social, economic, and moral. If the theological fabric withers and collapses, what will you do then? Apparently for Coolidge it never has collapsed. But for millions of his fellow Americans there is very little of it left, and in consequence they demand a readjustment of the universe with which Calvin Coolidge can hardly provide them.