Niall Andrew Palmer
Brunel University, United Kingdom
Series: First Men, America’s Presidents
Calvin Coolidge was one of America’s most unusual presidents. Selected as vice president by rebellious convention delegates and thrust unexpectedly into the presidency on the death of his predecessor, he nonetheless imprinted his authority on both party and country. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, he came to personify not just an administration but a social and political ‘era’. Although historians still dispute his legacy, the thirtieth president’s image remains both distinctive and enduring. This is partly because Coolidge was a walking contradiction of his times. He had little of the ‘charisma’ deemed essential to political success and was obsessed with fiscal prudence in an age of acquisitiveness and wild financial speculation. His economic views were more suited to a nineteenth century agrarian nation than to an emerging industrial-capitalist giant. His personal life embodied the values of white, Puritan New England, not those of the big northern cities, whose cosmopolitanism and moral relativism increasingly set the tone for the nation in the Coolidge years.
Americans seemed to admire their awkward, pinch-faced president as much as they ignored the homilies he preached and the example he offered. Under his administration, American society completed its transition to the twentieth century, becoming increasingly materialistic, brash, urbanized and experimental. Gender roles were challenged and sexual mores loosened. Despite the Ku Klux Klan, whites and blacks increasingly intermingled in the workplaces and jazz clubs of northern cities. For the first time, youth gained its own distinct identity while the temporal and spiritual power of religion was shaken by secularism and Darwinism. Through it all, Coolidge appeared to many as a beacon of calm and moderation in worrying times, striving to offer reassurance and stability to the nation. He was the last executive to believe in the ‘whig’ model of the presidency – offering more restrained leadership than that popularized by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Even here, however, a dichotomy arose. His shrewd manipulation of the press simply heightened media interest in the presidency and amplified its power.
The disjunctions of his era aside, Coolidge’s private life and personality continue to fascinate biographers. His romanticization of his childhood and of the people who raised and taught him, his devotion to his wife and his reaction to the deaths of his mother and youngest son reveal a character deeper and more complex than the cold public image he displayed. Unlike later presidents, Coolidge kept his public and private personas apart, adding to the air of mystery which still surrounds him. His achievements were not inconsiderable. Under his leadership, the economy grew faster and prosperity spread further than ever before. His tax-cutting policies and shrinkage of the size and cost of government made him an iconic figure to Republican conservatives. Nevertheless, it is chiefly for who he was and for the values he represented that Calvin Coolidge is remembered today. (Imprint: Nova) (Imprint: Nova)