A Puritan in Babylon

by William Allen White
[Macmillan, $3.50]
IN this absorbingly interesting biography William Allen White completes with full brush strokes the portrait of Calvin Coolidge which he first lightly sketched in 1925. Based on first-hand knowledge, information from Coolidge’s friends, and rewarding research in the William Howard Taft papers, the book gives a circumstantial account of the political ascent of the thin-faced, inhibited, taciturn Vermont villager who had a shy gift for winning friends who influenced people. Twenty times he ran for office, and nineteen times he won the prize. At every turn someone stood at his elbow to give him a forward push. White reveals the essential tragedy of Coolidge’s career by constantly projecting the man against his times — a static figure in an era of swirling economic development which Coolidge neither understood nor greatly cared to understand.
The author clears up many an obscure point in the politics of the period. There is food for thought in the fact that, if President Harding had died a few hours later, Coolidge would have taken the oath of office not in the light of a coal-oil lamp in his father’s rural home, but amidst the splendors of the country estate of a political friend he was about to visit. White also adds to our knowledge of Coolidge’s curious friendship with Mr. Frank Stearns, the factional intrigues in the Republican convention of 1920, Chief Justice Taft’s comings and goings in the White House, and the genesis and meaning of the enigmatic pronouncement, ’I do not choose to run for President in 1928.’
The author’s chief concern, however, is with the inner rather than the outer Coolidge. Since no more baffling personality ever occupied the White House, it is not surprising that White never quite succeeds in discovering ’the man behind the mask.’ ’I don’t know as I can help you,’ Coolidge remarked to White, adding, ' Maybe there is n’t any; I don’t know.’ White leans most heavily on the notion that Coolidge was a ‘throwback to the more primitive days of the Republic,’but since the ingrained belief in thrift, honesty, and hard work fails to account for his subject’s course as Vice President and President, he seeks refuge in Coolidge’s acceptance of the divine right of property, however ill-gotten, and in his ‘almost canine loyalty’ to the Republican organization. Less acceptable is the explanation implied in the title of the book, for probably no President possessed a smaller amount of Puritan moral fire than the man who sat voiceless in Harding’s Cabinet, and later gave his presidential blessing to the gilded financial revels that debauched and almost destroyed the nation.
Perhaps some future biographer will look into the question of Coolidge’s deficient physical vitality as a possible key to his do-nothing policy in Washington. Mr. White himself might have pondered the fact that Coolidge had scarcely ever traveled outside New England and never slept in a Pullman car before his candidacy for Vice President in 1920; nor had any of his ancestors migrated West. Little wonder that he failed to understand the Western farm problem, or that his only blast of moral indignation was directed, not against ’economic royalists,’but against the Republican Congress which passed the McNary-Haugen bill.
This book will not please readers who believe that Coolidge was the embodiment of all the ancient American virtues, or those who hold that the Republican Party is the only party fit to govern. Yet it must be accepted as a valiant and largely successful attempt to disclose a man and his epoch, written by a journalist who brings wide experience and sympathetic insight to the task. White’s final judgment of Coolidge reads: ’In the terrible decade when he was in the place of greatest power, he lacked the vision to exercise the highest judgment. He was handicapped there by his background, circumscribed by his own life’s pattern, his temperament, his experience as the pampered adopted child of what he felt was a benevolent plutocracy. ’