This summer my family visited the pristine and fully preserved village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont — hometown of President Calvin Coolidge. The visit moved me in unexpected ways.
I was struck by the austere simplicity of the place — and of his life. I was inspired by the hard work that shaped him and the tragedies he’d overcome. I wanted to learn more about him.
What I’ve discovered is that he was one of the least remarkable presidents we’ve had —boring really — in all the right ways. And what it’s left me wondering is if perhaps his life and approach to public office is something we need to rediscover.
While Coolidge was the vice president, at home for a visit in Plymouth Notch on August 3rd, 1923, he was awakened at two in the morning and informed that President Harding had died. He quickly dressed and was sworn in at 2:30 by lamplight. His father, the only notary public in the area, administered the oath, and then went about his daily chores. The scene is still set today in that very room, as it was on that fateful morning (see image below.)
Coolidge worked this land and his father’s various agricultural and business ventures as he grew up. It was a hard life, with harsh winters. His mother died when he was twelve. I cannot imagine the pain of this, at that time in a boy’s life. They seem to have spoken very little of it — even a book of letters between he and his father, which I read recently, scarcely mentions her. They simply pressed on, as so many in that time did when faced with hardship.
Coolidge applied his simple, hard-working, austere style to his political career. He just kept going, and kept winning elections on the merits of his work for the people, eventually finding himself on a presidential ticket. Though he was shrewd, it never seemed to be self-serving. Though he fought to win, he never seemed to want to win at all costs. That would not be right, his father would have said. Through it all, he maintained this simple, focused demeanor.
As he assumed the presidency, he proved this was a way of life, not just a political calculation. He took just one international trip during his entire presidency — and just a short jaunt to Cuba. History.com notes, “during this era of societal transformation (the roaring twenties,) Coolidge served as a sort of father figure. The quiet, respectable and frugal president provided a comforting symbol of old-fashioned responsibility and virtue.”
He governed, if you could even call it that, with a great simplicity. Raised in a puritan home with a simple reliance on Providence and an awareness of the fragility of life, Coolidge seemed to believe that what the nation needed, in that time, was steady presence, not showy leadership.
The White House’s official telling gives further context:
The political genius of President Coolidge, Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1926, was his talent for effectively doing nothing: “This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone…. And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy….”
Coolidge was both the most negative and remote of Presidents, and the most accessible.
He was able to let the country operate while not seeming aloof. He seems to have understood that, for those times, the nation needed not the “bold leadership” that so many speak of today, but a the steady hand of character. Again, the official White House telling:
Coolidge was “distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement,” wrote a Democratic admirer, Alfred E. Smith. “His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history.”
This really grabbed me. Could it be any more true than in this moment, right now in October of 2020? It has me longing for our nation to abandon “politics as theatre” and “politics as cultural bludgeon” and just try to elect men and women of character.
Though we may not have this choice on the ballot every time, perhaps as we think and deliberate our way through our entire ballot this year — from city council on up — we should look not through the lens of power, partisanship and entertainment — but through the lens of simple character.
Perhaps if we had more Calvin Coolidges our nation would be better off.