Giving Voice to Not-So-Silent Cal

Article excerpt

Silent Cal wasn't really so silent. As the nation's 30th president, Calvin Coolidge gave 520 press conferences from his unexpected arrival in office in 1923 to his departure in 1929. He gave more speeches than any of his predecessors. The first president of the radio age, he gave 16 radio addresses and, in a 1927 poll, ranked ahead of Will Rodgers as a radio personality.

He also spoke forthrightly, if tersely, about politically charged issues - such as race - that other politicians sidestepped. "Numbered among our population are some 12 million colored people," he said. "Under our Constitution their rights are just as sacred as those of any other citizen. It is both a public and private duty to protect those rights."

In his biography, "Coolidge: An American Enigma," Robert Sobel gives voice to not-so-Silent Cal, correcting 30 years of conventional wisdom that Coolidge more or less napped his way through the presidency, waking long enough to do business a favor and then nodding off again. Mr. Sobel sets out to reintroduce Coolidge to the American public, quoting at length from the president's own speeches and writings, from media commentary of the time and from the remarks of his own family and friends.

The book offers little in the way of original research, as Mr. Sobel himself acknowledges. But such research isn't necessary to make his point; there is more than enough evidence on the record to suggest that history has distorted Coolidge's record beyond recognition. That's unfortunate because Calvin Coolidge has much to offer this country even now in the way of legislative models and, well, character.

He made it his administration's work to reduce the size of government, but he took care to maintain public trust in what remained. When controversy erupted over allegations that the secretary of the interior had secretly leased Navy oil reserves at Elk Hill and Teapot Dome in exchange for payoffs and bribes, Mr. Coolidge promised to prosecute any crimes and moved quickly to appoint special counsels from both sides of the political aisle to investigate. Eventually, several Cabinet holdovers from the Harding administration were forced out. The New York Times praised Coolidge's "rugged integrity" in restoring public confidence in the wake of the scandals.

That integrity carried over to the smallest matters. He refused to keep a telephone on his office desk because, he said, it wasn't in keeping with the dignity of the office. The thought of Coolidge philandering, lying or maintaining enemies lists would have been incomprehensible even to his critics. A reporter noted in 1920 that, regardless of whether one agrees with what he did, "you know he's done his best to do right."

The character he displayed in office was born of sturdy Vermont stock whose strengths he called on in times of both sorrow and joy. …