On Inaugurations

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1921. President Harding can be seen at center of the Inaugural Stand.

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1921. President Harding can be seen at center of the Inaugural Stand. Vice President Coolidge stands fifth in line of men in top hats to Harding’s left.

When Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge took part in the ceremonies of March 4, 1921, the day every four years that marked Inauguration Day in this country for one hundred and forty-three years (until the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution took effect in 1933), he came to the event an old hand to the process of ushering in new administrations. Prior to 1937, Vice Presidents were accorded their own swearing-in ceremony, yet Coolidge saw this as discordant with what should be an esteemed and seamless occasion not the disjointed one he found waiting for him on this day ninety-four years ago. His experience in Massachusetts had been ample training ground for what he would encounter in Washington and, having taken part in so many, he was certainly qualified to analyze the deficiencies of how government transitioned in the national capital. In fact, he found the pomp and circumstance of Federal ceremonies far less impressive than the dignity and respectability present throughout his own state’s inaugurations. He writes in 1929, “As I had already taken a leading part in seven inaugurations and witnessed four others in Massachusetts, the experience was not new to me, but I was struck by the lack of order and formality that prevailed. A part of the ceremony takes place in the Senate Chamber and a part on the east portico, which destroys all semblance of unity and continuity.”

President Coolidge being administered the oath four years later, 1925.

President Coolidge being administered the oath four years later, 1925. The Bible lay open to one of his favorite passages, John 1, which begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

He had served in every state office save school board by this time, been inaugurated every year from 1914 through 1920, and had watched the formal installation of Governor Walsh and others during those years. It was another expression of his regard for the importance the states hold in our system that Coolidge dwells on this otherwise overlooked point. Often enough we are absorbed in affairs on the national stage and the importance of our own state and local decisions lose due proportion. We await the President’s next move while what our governors are doing or can do is discounted as somehow less worthy of significance. We neglect our local government, expecting the slack to be taken up by someone at one of those agencies in the Beltway when it was likely up to us in the first place. We look too much upon the powerlessness we feel to effect good results from Washington when we could be realizing the power we have at home, right here in our own state, within our own counties, in our own neighborhoods, and on our own streets. We must take care lest we let government continue to slip out of our grasp and become nationalized in every way. If we do not, one day we will sit shackled with the realization that we could have kept our liberties if only we had insisted decisions remain closest to the people, governance be retained in our hands and self-control starts with self.

Coolidge would go on to be suddenly inaugurated in the middle of the night on August 3, 1923, as word came of the death of President Harding. Sworn in by his own father, a notary public, he would enjoy the distinction not only of being the first on that score but also the first to be sworn in by a former President, then-currently Chief Justice William H. Taft, on this day ninety years ago. It was the practice of Chief Justices White and Taft to recite the prescribed oath in the form of a question, requiring the President to but say, “I do” in commitment to official responsibilities. It is fitting that his final public oath should be so concisely administered, as if to underscore his consciousness of what waste in all its forms costs the people. All together Coolidge took part in ten inaugurations from the Massachusetts General Court all the way to President of the United States, completing a remarkable accumulation of experiences in public service.

For now, however, Vice President Coolidge was on a road of preparation that would take him through the unprecedented attendance in Cabinet meetings, presiding over the Senate, and getting to know the country through a speaking circuit that would span from Maine to California and the Twin Cities to Charleston. It was all equipping him for that solemn night in August 1923. This is why Coolidge focused so intently upon the duties of one office at a time, that he should acquit himself faithfully in small things lest Providence entrust him with greater things. Content to end public life as a small-town Representative, his character, ability, and trust reposed in him by ever-larger electorates raised him to higher and higher obligations. Who can say what mundane and seemingly inconsequential experiences we face now are not getting us ready for something far more important?

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1925, looking across the thousands gathered to witness the ceremony. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1925, looking across the thousands gathered to witness the ceremony. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On Authenticity

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We all want to look our best in the public eye. Some succeed and are rewarded. Others fail and plummet in the most humiliating of fashions. Presenting what we do to customers is a constant balance between advertising what we offer without compromising our character and genuineness.

When we study how others have mastered this challenge, we seek to learn the fundamentals, the essentials that transcend a particular time and place so that we may replicate the example good leaders bequeath us.

Calvin Coolidge was such a leader. Oh sure, he is little-known today and those who do know of him, have heard more of the caricature surrounding the mythical “Silent” Cal than the real qualities of the man. When we look for that more accurate understanding, it means going back past those whose prejudices and “axes to grind” have blinded them from accepting who the man truly was. One contemporary, who worked closely beside him in Coolidge’s early Massachusetts career, is Benjamin Felt. Mr. Felt witnessed the intense days of 1919 when the police of Boston voted to walk off the job to go on strike, leaving the city defenseless before the opportunities of vandals, looters, and thieves in September of that very uncertain year. Seattle had already been virtually shutdown by strikes, would the great city of Boston follow suit?

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Coolidge teaches us that our words need not indict us. We do not have to live with the regret of a rash guarantee, a hasty statement or pressured response. We fail to recognize the liberating truth that a person is rarely hurt by words never said. It is all the more amazing that Coolidge, contrary to his detractors, said plenty but he placed such care in his speech that he could live with himself and stand blameless before others.

Mr. Felt, assessing Coolidge’s decisive response to support the city’s police commissioner, relieve the striking officers and resist union pressure to restore them, saw character where others later would see political calculation. Later eyes would see the past as consisting of foregone conclusions. As events unfolded at the time, however, nothing was foregone, everything had to be worked out carefully.

Having followed closely the facts as they came in and knowing his hometown as he did, for Mr. Felt was from Boston, he knew that in Coolidge, there was no subterfuge, no facade compensating for a lack of virtue or ability. Felt put it this way,

“Budding statesmen, who study the Coolidge course, will early discover that he did not backtrack. There were never any contradictions about him. There were no upsetting discoveries to be met. Although he had been making speeches for years, none rose up to smite him. The more his record was investigated, the more like Coolidge it appeared. To a degree rarely equaled he had followed the course of his own charting. Having all his life been short on promising, he had no explaining to do over unkept promises. Persons disagreed as to the positions he took and as to the policies he adopted, but not as to the man. States which chose hostile legislators gave him their electoral vote. Aspirants for political honors may well study the singular career of Calvin Coolidge to discover how he came to have such a hold on the American people. If they seek to explain it in the development of a publicity technique, theu will be wasting their time. They can to better advantage look at something more fundamental than techniques, a sincerity of purpose and a genuineness of expression that carried its own conviction. No doctoring was needed to make it palatable” (“Some Points of View About Calvin Coolidge,” Vermont History, October 1955: 316-7).

Successful business operates no less through the same principles. Customers see through the cheap attempt to “get by” on showmanship without substance, the thin veneer of self-promotion covering incompetence or worse, dishonesty. Remaining authentically yourself is what secures respect, not only with one’s self and the marketplace but God. We hold to the genuine not for what it gets us, but because it is everlastingly right.

Governor Coolidge reviewing some of the State Guard, called to restore order and observance of the law in Boston.

Governor Coolidge reviewing some of the State Guard, called to restore order and observance of the law in Boston.

Trying to win the sale whatever the consequences, taking people’s money without regard for that greater commodity – trust built on integrity – may accrue results for a time but we never escape the heavy costs in the end. Judging the bridge of credibility as secondary to taking as much as one can, “burning bridges” so that others cannot access your revenue stream or customer base is but self-deception. It will be seen for the dead end that it is.

Good leadership makes good business. Whatever line of work we do, whatever product we offer, whatever service we provide, it can all be undone with a breach of trust, a break in dependability, a departure from integrity. We are all in the trust business then. That is why studying good leaders, men like Calvin Coolidge, sharpen us, as the proverb says, as iron sharpens iron.

“Best of Coolidge” on Youtube!

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Coolidge friends, check out the first of twenty “Best of Coolidge” Readings now available on Youtube.

Nineteen more to come…stay tuned!

“Got Another Dog”

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President Coolidge is attributed with once observing, “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.” Unlike many who fail to live up to their maxims, however, the Coolidges fulfilled that ideal and more. Over five and a half years, they collected quite a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, two raccoons, and even more exotic gifts, from two lions, a pygmy hippo, a bear, and a wombat, to name but a few of the generous expressions of admiration shown to them by their fellow citizens from across the country.

First Lady Grace Coolidge dressing Prudence Prim in her garden party bonnet for the veterans on the White House lawn.

First Lady Grace Coolidge dressing Prudence Prim in her garden party bonnet for the veterans on the White House lawn.

One of them, came out of the sadness resulting from the loss of Prudence Prim to distemper in July 1927. The younger of the famous pair of white collie companions of the Coolidges, she was principally the friend of the First Lady while Rob Roy was “the President’s dog.” “Robert,” as the President called him, is not only honored by a distinguished mention in Mr. Coolidge’s Autobiography, but shares the dual achievement of being painted in the best-known portrait of Grace Coolidge and beside her husband in a later portrait by another artist.

Calamity Jane featured in "Our Family Pets" by Grace Coolidge, The American Magazine, December 1929 issue.

Calamity Jane featured in “Our Family Pets” by Grace Coolidge, The American Magazine, December 1929 issue.

The gift to take the place of Prudence, however, was presented by Robert and Mary Ann, the children of W. E. Scripps of Wildwood Farms in Orion, Michigan. The three of them, with pilot Algernon Graham, to the executive offices at the high school in Rapid City, South Dakota. The new dog, a white Shetland sheepdog named Diana of Wildwood, was kindly received by President Coolidge on July 26, 1927, but it was quickly discovered that the dog had picked up quite a few grease spots and smudges on the plane coming out. Smearing onto the President’s suit, he held the dog and she licked his face in reply as the film rolled and photographers snapped pictures.

Robert Scripps posing with Diana/Calamity Jane in Rapid City, as they present the dog to the President, July 1927.

Robert Scripps posing with Diana/Calamity Jane in Rapid City, as he and his sister present the puppy to the President, July 1927.

“Got another dog,” the President summarized on the occasion. “Guess Rob Roy will like to see her. She takes the place of Prudence Prim.” From a man shrewdly guarded with his thoughts on other occasions, this was a decisive endorsement of good dogs. The First Lady renamed her Calamity Jane for her talents for getting dirty in the weeks and months to come but this initial meeting between Cal and Calamity recalls the importance of loving our four-footed family members as well.

The famous portrait of Grace Coolidge with Rob Roy, painted by Howard Chandler Christy, 1924.

The famous portrait of Grace Coolidge with Rob Roy, painted by Howard Chandler Christy, 1924.

President Calvin Coolidge with Rob Roy painted by DeWitt Lockman, 1931.

President Calvin Coolidge with Rob Roy painted by DeWitt Lockman, 1931. Coolidge once told a group of White House callers that he liked Robert, who usually sit at his feet while sizing up every visitor, because he had never lied to him, never broken a confidence and never had a favor to ask.

On Executive Duty

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From President Calvin Coolidge:

“It is my duty to extend to every individual the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”

“I have another duty equally constitutional, and even more important, of securing the enforcement of the law. In that duty I do not intend to fail.”

“I am a Republican, but I can not on that account shield anyone because he is a Republican. I am a Republican, but I can not on that account prosecute anyone because he is a Democrat.”

“It is not for the President to determine criminal guilt or render judgment in civil causes. That is the function of the courts. It is not for him to prejudge. I shall do neither; but when facts are revealed to me that require action for the purpose of insuring the enforcement of either civil or criminal liability, such action will be taken. That is the province of the Executive.”

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The Coolidge Eclipses

President and Mrs. Coolidge with Rob Roy venture out in the early morning, despite freezing temps, to see the solar eclipse on January 24, 1925, seen from the lawn of the White House. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

President and Mrs. Coolidge with Rob Roy venture out in the early morning, despite freezing temps, to see the solar eclipse on January 24, 1925, seen from the lawn of the White House. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Using blackened window panes to view the event, the Coolidges witness the second such phenomenon, the first time being back in fall of 1923.

Using blackened window panes to view the event, the Coolidges witness the second such phenomenon, the first time being back in fall of 1923.

Watching the first solar eclipse during the Coolidge tenure from the Executive Offices, early morning of September 10, 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Watching the first solar eclipse during the Coolidge tenure from the Executive Offices, early morning of September 10, 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On What It Means to Be Civilized

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“A large part of the history of free institutions is the history of the people struggling to emancipate themselves from unrestricted legislation” — Calvin Coolidge

Each generation bears an inescapable debt inherited from those who came before it but also owed to those who come afterward. As Coolidge said, “Civilization is always on trial. Sometimes it seems to succeed. Sometimes it seems to fail.” But, we may ask in our time, what is civilization? Its opposite, of whatever time and place, is barbarism. What, though, does it mean to be civilized? For Coolidge, it meant something far more important than knowing which fork goes with each course at dinner. It referred to something deeply embedded within human history, something spiritual not material, yet it is apparent for all to see when neglected or absent altogether. America may yet be the greatest country on earth, but is it meeting the burdens of civilization? Is it bequeathing to the future what it means to be civilized?

Is it civilized, for instance, when a serial rapist finds you and a friend in Central Park at dusk and, knowing you’re unarmed, takes advantage of the situation while your companion does nothing to stop it? Is it civilized when the neighborhood turns out to watch your house catch fire and burn, holding back while you, an outsider to them, succumb to the smoke and heat? Is it civilized when hundreds of doctor millions of times every year reach into the womb of a pregnant woman to suck out what moments before has been a living person, discarding mere tissue into the biohazard bin? Is it civilized when nation after nation, cowed by fear of offending someone, sit silently by while true animals, not fit to be classified as human, broadcast their decapitations, burnings, kidnappings, stonings, and countless other crimes with impunity? Do we merely chalk all this up to unfair distributions of wealth, the unfortunate discontent of the impoverished and unemployed? “Boys will be boys,” after all. They’re not evil, it is claimed, they’re simply unrehabilitated and misunderstood. In fact, our own President, if not actively complicit in their actions, endorses (with all the power of Executive rhetoric) their agenda all through the Levant, calling them “ISIL,” while denying their self-professed identity as having anything to do with the world’s most violent religion, Islam.

Coolidge, who lived through the devastation of World War I, that most infamous of destructive years here in America — 1919 — as well as the violent revolutions in Russia, Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, Turkey, and elsewhere around the globe along with the rise of Hitler in Germany, helps define the meaning of “civilized” when he says,

“Civilization is to be condemned, anyway, unless it possesses the ability to perpetuate itself.” Or again, when he says, “The process of civilization consists of the discovery by men of the laws of the universe, and of living in harmony with those laws.” Or how about when he observes, “Civilization is the bearer of great gifts, the source of ever-enlarging opportunity. It is not the result of a self-existing plenty, but rather the product of a high endeavor”? Coolidge elaborates, “The law of progress and civilization is not the law of the jungle. It is not an earthly law, it is a divine law. It does not mean the survival of the fittest, it means the sacrifice of the fittest. Any mother will give her life for her child. Men put the women and children in the lifeboats before they themselves will leave the sinking ship.” For a man and his generation who lived at the time the Titanic and Lusitania went down, this was no idle or theoretical allusion. For Coolidge, it also envisioned the danger posed to any ship of state, America especially.

Knowing that “free” people everywhere are hamstrung by their own slavery to political correctness, the same attitude which appeared at Fort Hood struts unchallenged across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Nursed in our inner cities and welcomed across our borders, it dares us to speak up and do anything about its audacious hatred for civilization, whether it be Ferguson or Washington, D. C. Will we? Who is courageous enough to stand for law, liberty and basic civilization, knowing that so fundamental an exercise of our First Amendment may literally cost us everything, our freedom, our income, our social status, our lives? The question comes to each of us: Is it worth it? What price are we ready to pay to retain freedom, even civilization itself, not just for our own sacred honor but for posterity’s sake? To keep civilization going forward rather than falling backwards?

“Civilization is always on trial,” Coolidge declared, “testing out, not the power of material resources, but whether there be, in the heart of the people, that virtue and character which come from charity sufficient to maintain progress.” Will we pass or fail the test we now undergo? Put another way, can we afford to fail?