What Would Calvin Coolidge Think?

There are a lot of “what ifs” in history. I happened to think of one the other day while reading a little booklet published by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation (http://www.calvin-coolidge.org). Written by historian Jerry L. Wallace and titled Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President, it discussed the role that radio played in helping Coolidge get his message of common-sense economy in government around Congress and the liberal newspapers and directly to the American voters.

calvin-coolidgeAs I read the information in that booklet, I couldn’t help but think of how two other later presidents used radio to get their message before the people. Franklin Roosevelt, however, presented a message that was quite different from that of Coolidge. Whereas Coolidge preached economy, savings, strict accountability of taxpayer monies, and small government based on strict constitutionalism, FDR preached the socialist doctrine of big government, deficit spending, and the welfare state. His soothing, calming voice came in the midst of America’s worst economic crisis, and Americans believed his words. Perhaps more than any other president before or since, FDR gave us the political conditions that have slowly whittled away at Americans’ economic and political freedoms.

Then, a generation later, when Ronald Reagan arrived on the scene, Coolidge’s message once again came to the fore. Reagan preached economy, strict adherence to the Constitution, and smaller government. Unfortunately, although the economy responded to Reagan’s policies, rising from the malaise that had set in under Carter to bring greater prosperity, his administration was noticeably less successful at achieving smaller government than Coolidge’s administration had been.

But all three of those presidents used radio to great advantage. Coolidge pioneered it with his extensive use of radio. (Harding had actually been the first president to address the public via radio in the spring of 1922, but Coolidge capitalized on the new medium, especially using it during the election campaign of 1924.) During his five years and seven months in office, Coolidge delivered more than forty radio addresses, at least sixteen in 1928 alone. FDR delivered his now-famous “fireside chats” during the 1930s. And Reagan introduced weekly Saturday radio addresses (not that many people listened to them!) and he made extensive use of television addresses to the nation.

But beyond the radio theme, Wallace mentions some deeply human things about the people who lived during the Coolidge era. For example, during the 1924 Democratic National Convention, Coolidge’s son, Calvin Jr., died from blood poisoning that resulted from a blister he had gotten while playing tennis. The chairman of the convention interrupted the delegates’ activities to announce the young man’s death, and “a sorrowful moan went up” from the crowded hall. They then adjourned the convention for the rest of the day out of respect for President and Mrs. Coolidge.

Can you imagine that happening by either party today? I rather suspect that some delegates would actually cheer and then use the occasion to politicize the incident. How far we’ve strayed in less than a hundred years!

As I finished reading Wallace’s booklet, I found myself asking, “What would Coolidge think of the political situation today? What would be his assessment of the political environment today?” From what I’ve learned of Coolidge, I suspect that he wouldn’t have much to say. After all, he was a man of few words. But you can be sure that he would not have wanted to be associated with either political party today! Oh that we had statesmen of such sterling character today. Will we ever have such again?

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