David Frum invokes Coolidge to challenge the notion that politics is all about messaging:
You know whose White House was really, really terrible at communications? Calvin Coolidge’s. “Silent Cal” notoriously refused to talk to anybody at all. The story goes that, when still governor of Massachusetts, he was seated at a dinner beside a Boston society woman who liltingly insisted: “Now governor: My husband has bet me $20 you wont say even three words to me. What do you answer to that?” Coolidge: “You lose.”
Coolidge won 382 electoral votes and 54 percent of the vote when he ran for re-election in 1924. Had he sought a third term in 1928, he would have won even more crushingly.
Why? The Coolidge boom.
A few thoughts:
1. Materialist interpretations of history and current politics seem to have carried the day in almost every corner of the commentariat. If the only issues in every election are the objective status of “peace” and “prosperity,” as Frum suggests, then there’s not much room left for ideas and political conviction.
Call me naive, but that sort of interpretation strikes me as simplistic, if pleasantly empirical. By positing that political outcomes can be deduced from empirical realities (i.e. the state of the economy), it reduces a confusing, maddening, and often incoherent political process to a set of nice firm metrics. Comforting, I suppose. And defensible, according to many political scientists. But I’m still dubious.
2. I’m also not persuaded by Frum’s invocation of the mythically silent Cal. After all, Coolidge wasn’t really so silent — he had plenty to say, if only on a limited number of occasions.
It’s fair to say, in fact, that far from being “terrible,” Coolidge was actually quite good at communications. Successful messaging requires that a president know when to talk and when to keep quiet. Over-exposure is a real threat for denizens of the White House. Coolidge, I think, understood that less was sometimes more.
3. More to the point, however, I’m not convinced that Coolidge’s 1920s communications strategy (which was, in some ways, a throwback to nineteenth century White House messaging) is relevant today. We live in a very different world, especially when it comes to communications technology and mass media.
Coolidge may have been one of the first presidents to explore the utility of mass media, as historian David Greenberg has noted in his fine and admirably brief biography. The ostensibly Silent Cal was a progenitor, of sorts, for the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
But while Coolidge’s career may hold lessons for modern politicians, it can’t tell them how to navigate the modern 24-7 news cycle. How would Coolidge have handled the unquenchable thirst of modern media outlets for news, commentary, and invective? We’ll never know.
And somehow, even if he figured out what to do with CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, I’m pretty sure that Coolidge would have found the notion of “social media” unintelligible.
And repulsive, if he ever figured it out.