Writing for Salon.com, Coolidge biographer David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers, has noted Sarah Palin’s interest in Coolidge.
A reader who knew only the author and title of Sarah Palin’s new book, “America by Heart,” would in all likelihood be able to predict many of the delights contained within: self-justifying accounts of her behavior on the 2008 campaign, snarky jabs at President Obama, paeans to the Alaska grizzly. Rapturous words for Calvin Coolidge, however, would probably not be among the expected finds. And yet peppered through Palin’s new volume of ruminations lies a handful of admiring references to our 30th president. The oddity is worth pondering.
Obviously, Greenberg is no Palin fan. But he does display a cautious (if not uncritical) appreciation for Coolidge. “To most people today,” he points out, “Coolidge is little more than a cartoon. If he’s remembered at all, he’s the grim-faced ‘Silent Cal,’ the man said by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice to have looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle.”
In fact, though, Coolidge was a president of real accomplishment, Greenberg contends. As evidence, he cites both the Dawes Plan for European debt relief and the federal government’s response to the 1927 Mississippi flood. (He also mentions, but does endorse, Coolidge’s economic policies.)
Greenberg points out that Palin’s interest in Coolidge hardly makes her unique, especially among Republicans.
For decades, since the arrival in power with Ronald Reagan of so-called movement conservatives, Coolidge has been a patron saint to the right — a symbol of patriotism and piety, of hard work and thrift, and not least of low taxes and minimal government. When Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, he removed the portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman in the Cabinet Room and put up those of Dwight Eisenhower and Coolidge instead.
Greenberg explains the Coolidge boom as a two-part phenomenon:
Coolidge retains this mystique because he reconciled two different strains of conservatism and two different factions of the Republican Party. His approval of the decade’s kinetic capitalism pleased Chamber of Commerce types. But economic growth also has a way of unleashing cultural change, and Coolidge’s flinty New England virtue reassured traditionalists worried about moral decay during a time of the “new woman” and the “new Negro,” of the Scopes trial and jazz. “We were smack in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, with hip flasks, joy rides, and bathtub gin parties setting the social standards,” wrote Edmund Starling, Coolidge’s Secret Service agent and daily walking companion. “The president was the antithesis of all this and he despised it.”
At the same time, however, Coolidge was a remarkably modern president, especially when it came to public relations. As Greenberg relates:
Despite his reputation for silence, moreover, Coolidge was a skilled speechmaker — a prizewinning orator as a student and the last president to write most of his own remarks — and he excelled especially at the patriotic homilies that Sarah Palin seems to admire.
Overall, Greenberg’s take on Coolidge may not sit well with Silent Cal’s contemporary admirers (including many readers of this blog, no doubt.) But Greenberg does show a willingness to take Coolidge seriously as a political figure — rather than treating him as some sort of nameless, faceless, do-nothing presidential potted plant. And that’s something we should all be grateful for.