Friday, March 18, 2011

Coolidge is Cool

Welcome back to Metaphysical Booknotes, the show that Raises Dead Issues With Dead People. Today’s guest is a dead white male much forgotten, long ignored, but lately regaining some popularity.

I’ve summoned President Coolidge to talk with us. Called Silent Cal by some for his habit of remaining quiet in private meetings, he actually was quite a prolific writer, the author of several books, and a newspaper columnist as well as the last president to write his own speeches, and rather lengthy ones at that. He is not the type for purple prose, but plain speaking and his views are as solid as Vermont granite.

MB: Good Morning, Mr. President. I’d like to start our interview by asking you what you were like as a little kid.

CC: When I was a little fellow, as long as I can remember, I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the house. I felt I just couldn’t meet people, and shake hands with them. Most of the visitors would sit with mother and father in the kitchen, and it was the hardest thing in the world to have to go through the kitchen door and give them a greeting. I was almost ten before I realized I couldn’t go on that way. And by fighting hard I used to manage to get through that door. I’m all right with old friends, but every time I meet a stranger, I’ve got to go through the old kitchen door, back home, and it’s not easy.

MB: Yet you got into politics young. It’s hard to imagine your politics were well considered. What were they like?

CC: When I first went to the legislature I was a very young man. I suppose those who voted for me considered me a radical or a liberal. I had only been a member of the Legislature a few months when I made up my mind that Massachusetts at any rate was legislating faster than it could administer and that the sane thing was to call a halt for the time being. I had not changed my views on these questions, but I had entirely changed my views as to what it was wise to do at the minute, and I changed my position and was probably called a conservative. I remember thinking at the time that neither the so-called liberals or the so-called conservatives would understand me. Perhaps both would think I was dishonest or at least not firm in my convictions, and my career would end with that session of the Legislature. Apparently they had more faith in me than I thought they would have.

MB: What would you recommend to young people today?

CC: Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, do that. Expect to be called a standpatter, but don’t be a standpatter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.

MB: That sounds a lot like you’d expect everybody to go into politics. Aren’t there better jobs?

CC: One should never trouble about getting a better job. But one should do one’s present job in such a manner as to qualify for a better job when it comes along.

MB: Oh, oh. Here comes a lecture on character from an old guy.

CC: Character is the only secure foundation of the state. Civilization is always on trial, testing out, not the power of material resources, but whether there be, in the heart of the people, that virtue and character which comes from charity sufficient to maintain progress. We must forever realize that material rewards are limited and in a sense they are only incidental, but the development of character is unlimited and is the only essential. There is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character.

MB: Let’s change the subject. Now, personally, Mr. President, I take a very dim view of partisanship. There’s no doubt that you were a Republican and a conservative. But, you’ve had some time to think now. What’s your present view?

CC: There is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship. But if there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office. Unless those who are elected under the same party designation are willing to assume sufficient responsibility and exhibit sufficient loyalty and coherence, so that they can cooperate with each other in the support of the broad general principles, of the party platform, the election is merely a mockery, no decision is made at the polls, and there is no representation of the popular will. Common honesty and good faith with the people who support a party at the polls require that party, when it enters office, to assume the control of that portion of the Government to which it has been elected. Any other course is bad faith and a violation of the party pledges.

MB: But why does it have to be so adverse? When a party takes power, does it have to shove it policies down the other side’s throat all the time?

CC: When the country has bestowed its confidence upon a party by making it a majority in the Congress, it has a right to expect such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government. This Administration has come into power with a very clear and definite mandate from the people. The expression of the popular will in favor of maintaining our constitutional guarantees was overwhelming and decisive. There was a manifestation of such faith in the integrity of the courts that we can consider that issue rejected for some time to come. Likewise, the policy of public ownership of railroads and certain electric utilities met with unmistakable defeat. The people declared that they wanted their rights to have not a political but a judicial determination, and their independence and freedom continued and supported by having the ownership and control of their property, not in the Government, but in their own hands. As they always do when they have a fair chance, the people demonstrated that they are sound and are determined to have a sound government.

Your Host: I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to my show before, but if you have, you know I’m an atheist. I know you are a believer. Any thoughts on that?

CC: It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.

MB: Who said we have to be great men?

CC: A wholesome regard for the memory of great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall still be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great.

MB: Are you a great man?

CC: It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.

MB: Wow. Can I quote you?

CC: The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.

MB: You got me off topic. We were talking about your belief that atheists can’t be great men. Isn’t that just another form of bigotry?

CC: Bigotry is only another word for slavery. It reduces to serfdom not only those against whom it is directed, but also those who seek to apply it. An enlarged freedom can only be secured by the application of the golden rule. No other utterance ever presented such a practical rule of life.

MB: I’m glad you feel that way, but is our country there yet?

CC: The encouraging feature of our country is not that it has reached our destination, but that it has overwhelmingly expressed its determination to proceed in the right direction.

MB: No doubt. But, my experience lately dealing with some other conservatives is that if you think the country needs to change in any way, you are a “progressive,” an America hater or the like, whereas some on the left seems to think that any culture other than our own is superior.

CC: Not all those who are working to better the condition of the people are Bosheviki or enemies of society.

MB: One of the chief differences between the right and the left seems to be their feelings about business and the accumulation of wealth.

CC: The chief business of the American People is business. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the encouragement of science, the increase of knowledge, the liberties, he widening of culture. Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today.

MB: Speaking of business, what are your views about the taking over of certain businesses by the government in response to crisis?

CC: The government has never shown much aptitude for real business. The Congress will not permit it to be conducted by a competent executive, but constantly intervenes. The most free, progressive and satisfactory method ever devised for the equitable distribution of property is to permit the people to care for themselves by conducting their own business. They have more wisdom than any government.

MB: You were always pro-business.

CC: If business can be let alone and assured of reasonable freedom from governmental interference and increased taxes, that will do more than all kinds of legislation to relieve depression. Local governments are justified in spending all the money necessary for direct relief of distress. But the nation and the states will only increase the difficulties by undertaking to restore confidence through legislation. It will be the part of wisdom to give business a free hand to supply its own remedies.

MB: One of the other big differences between the two parties is their economics – their views on spending and taxes.

CC: The people ought to take no selfish attitude of pressing for removing moderate and fair taxes which might produce a deficit. We must keep our budget balanced for each year. That is the cornerstone of our national credit, the trifling price we pay to command the lowest rate of interest of any great power in the world. Any surplus can be applied to debt reduction, and debt reduction is tax reduction.

MB: So, you are not one of those anti-tax conservatives?

CC: The appropriation of public money always is perfectly lovely until some one is asked to pay the bill. If we are to have a billion dollars of navy, half a billion of farm relief, etc. The people will have to furnish more revenue by paying more taxes. It is for them, through their Congress, to decide how far they wish to go. I would not want to be misunderstood. I am not advocating parsimony. I want to be liberal. Public service is entitled to a suitable reward. But there is a distinct limit to the amount of public service we can profitably employ. We require national defense, but it must be limited. We need public improvements, but they must be gradual. We have to make capital investments, but they must be certain to give fair returns. Every dollar expended must be made in the light of all our national resources and all our national needs.

MB: I guess you can’t separate taxes from spending. I presume you don’t approve of the massive spending going on today.

CC: Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody. A good many proposals are made by people that have very excellent things that they would like to have the Government do, but they come from people that have no responsibility for providing ways and means by which their proposals can be carried out. I don’t think in all my experience, which has been very large with people that come before me in and out of Government with proposals for spending money, I have ever had any proposal from anyone as to what could be done to save any money. Sometimes linked with the proposal for an immediate large expenditure is the suggestion that it ultimately will result in a saving. I think that is about the extent of the outside assistance I have had in that direction.

MB: You’d agree or disagree that there are certain things only the federal government can do though?

CC: One insidious practice which sugar-coats the dose of Federal intrusion is the division of expense for public improvements or services between state and national treasuries. The ardent States Rights advocate sees in this practice a vicious weakening of the state system. The extreme federalist is apt to look upon it in cynical fashion as bribing the states into subordination. The average American, believing in our dual-sovereignty system, must feel that the policy of national-doles to the states is bad and may become disastrous. We may go on yet for a time with the easy assumption that ‘if the states will not, the nation must.’ But that way lies trouble. When the National Treasury contributes half, there is temptation to extravagance by the state. We have seen some examples in connection with the Federal contributions to road building. Yet there are constant demands for more Federal contributions. Whenever by that plan we take something from one group of states and give it to another group, there is grave danger that we do an economic injustice on one side and a political injury on the other. We impose unfairly on the strength of the strong, and we encourage the weak to indulge their weakness.

MB: Ah, states rights. That has been an unresolved issue in this country since its inception, no?

CC: I am fearful that this broadening of the field of government activities is detrimental to both the Federal and the state governments. Efficiency of federal operations is impaired as their scope is duly enlarged. Efficiency of state governments is impaired as they relinquish responsibilities which are rightfully theirs. Unfortunately the Federal Government has strayed far afield from its legitimate business. It has trespassed upon fields where there should be no trespass. If we could confine our Federal expenditures to the legitimate obligations and functions of the Federal Government, a material reduction would be apparent. But far more important than this would be its effect upon the fabric of our constitutional form of government, which tends to be gradually weakened and undermined by this encroachment. The cure for this is not in our hands. It lies with the people. It will come when they realize the necessity of State assumption of State responsibility. It will come when they realize that the laws under which the Federal Government hands out contributions to the states are placing upon them a double burden of taxation–Federal taxation in the first instance to raise the moneys which the Government donates to the states, and state taxation in the second instance to meet the extravagances of state expenditures which are tempted by Federal donations.

MB: So, the federal government should mind its own business.

CC: Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been the minding of my own business.

MB: Even when it comes to violations of the constitution.

CC: Some people do not seem to understand fully the purpose of our constitutional restraints. They are not for protecting the majority, either in or out of the Congress. They can protect themselves with their votes. We have adopted a written constitution in order that the minority, even down to the most insignificant individual, might have their rights protected. So long as our Constitution remains in force, no majority, no matter how large, can deprive the individual of the right to life, liberty or property, or prohibit the free exercise of religion or the freedom of speech or of the press. If the authority now vested in the Supreme Court were transferred to the Congress, any majority no matter what their motive could vote away any of these most precious rights. Majorities are notoriously irresponsible. After irreparable damage had been done the only remedy that the people would have would be the privilege of trying to defeat such a majority at the next election. Every minority body that may be weak in resources or unpopular in the public estimation, also nearly every race and religious belief, would find themselves practically without protection, if the authority of the Supreme Court should be broken down and its powers lodged with the Congress.

MB: We’re almost out of time. Quick. What do make of the public union controversy?

CC: There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, any time, anywhere.

MB: And any advice on how to handle our financial crisis?

CC: When depression in business comes we begin to be very conservative in our financial affairs. We save our money and take no chances in its investment. Yet in our political actions we go in the opposite direction. We begin to support radical measures and cast our votes for those who support the most reckless proposals. This is a curious and illogical reaction. When times are good we might take a chance on a radical government. But when we are financially weakened we need the soundest and wisest of men and measures.

MB: Thanks for coming by Mr. President. It’s remarkable that when you speak long after your death it sounds so much like many things you’ve written in the past – in fact, exactly so, as if someone took your writings and tweeked it with just a little editing. I hope you come back too as we haven’t even talked about foreign affairs or your interests in liberty.

You've been listening to Metaphysical Booknotes. A previous broadcast can be found in our archives at 6/17/08.


  1. Very clever. Good research. I like this one a lot.

  2. Thanks. It took me 17 years to memorize all those quotes. I should have just copied them onto the computer in the first place.

  3. Clever-shmever. Well-researched, yada, yada, yada..... none of that changes the fact that Coolidge was a moron. Interview the people that put those words in his mouth (Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, etc......).

  4. I am re-writing your comment to show you how it is done: "Clever . . . Well-researched." See, that's better.

    Moron? I can't tell if you are kidding or not. I am not familiar with any writers who claim that he didn't write his own stuff and that he was in fact, very philosophical. He also used the radio and was considered fairly eloquent. Even David Greenberg's critical biography a few years ago acknowledged CC as a true believer in what he said.

    But, as I often ask of others when they call someone (usually me) stupid (as you, I prefer "moron"), what precisely was said by him that you disagree with it and how. I give you the floor (no one ever accepts the challenge, so no worries).


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .