CALVIN COOLIDGE was the contriver of the most persistent and transparent political hoax of twentieth-century America. He effected it by speaking to the American people twice weekly from his White House press conference forum through the medium of "the White House Spokesman." I was a party to the hoax. So were a dozen or so of my news colleagues. All of us were press conference regulars in the latter Coolidge years. I was assigned by United Press (now United Press International) to cover the State and War Departments, housed in the gingerbread building just across West Executive Avenue from the White House. In the State Department press room we were only a step away from the President's office in the west wing of the White House where the press conferences took place. Treasury reporters were not press conference regulars. The Treasury building, across East Executive Avenue, is a long block north and a long two blocks east from the White House Executive office. Consequently the Treasury men did not always come.
Mr. Coolidge could count his press conference well attended if a dozen reporters appeared. Press association reporters, representing all of the daily press in the United States and much of it throughout the world, were there, of course. We could not have imagined in the time of Mr. Coolidge the camaraderie and electronic gadgetry of the modern White House press conference. Neither could we have imagined the hell for leather spontaneity of the press conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR fielded oral questions on the fly with no protection other than his quick tongue and those admiring New Deal newsmen who were always ready to laugh at FDR's not-so-sly humor or to drown out or divert a hostile questioner who sought more than a wisecrack as a response to a tough question. Two hundred or more of us would crowd into FDR's Presidential office where we once had met Mr. Coolidge in sparse company.
Questions had to be written and submitted to C. Bascom Slemp, President Coolidge's secretary, prior to a conference. Mr. Coolidge had no press secretary. The White House Secretariat, including a press secretary, was set up by Mr. Hoover in 1929. Slemp, was a Virginia politician whose funereal appearance and melancholy air may have come of his lifelong effort to proselyte his native state, Virginia, for the Republican party. He winnowed the potentially troublesome questions.
The five, ten or twenty questions (each of us could ask more than one) that survived Mr. Slemp's scrutiny went to Mr. Coolidge a few