On the “Lost Art” of Saying ‘No’

Garland Tucker over at National Review reintroduces to us Presidents, Republican and Democrat, who were also masters of what seems a permanently lost art: the art of saying “No.” It is so easy to say “yes,” in the host of forms it has been uttered these eighty-nine years since Cal left office. Coolidge (and Cleveland before him) understood the President’s higher – and often most important – duty rests in the former. Moreover, they took it beyond the realm of sanitized theory into the gritty trenches of consistent practice. They waded in with daring courage and, though they stood where no one else could, they did not shirk. They stood as granite when the halls of government today are replete with those who have surrendered for infinitely less risk. They understood the role of the President much more profoundly than most of their successors.

The uncompromising reality is that the best answers to most problems simply do not reside in government offices.

Yet, it appears the successors of Calvin Coolidge have been engaged in an impossible race to escape that immutable reality. Every stride taken finds them no closer to the goal of leaving it behind in the dust than when Herbert Hoover first tried to do so back in 1929. The harder each successor tries, the closer reality remains. This is not simply some retro version of the “art of the deal” (which is nothing more than a “yes” disguised as a “no”). After eighty-nine years of telling a seemingly limitless list of petitioners “yes,” has it become an impossible expectation to ever hear “no” again? Out of the national shock that would surely result would come a breath of fresh air America has not known since Cal proved it could be done …and done well.

President Calvin Coolidge penning his first official public document while his private secretary Clark watches 8-5-1923

President Coolidge drafting his first state paper as the new Chief Executive. This was by no means his first encounter with official documents, having been Governor of the vital state of Massachusetts, State Senate President, State Representative, Northampton Mayor, and City Council member. He came to the office with more practical experience than most of his successors can claim. He wears the black arm band in mourning for his predecessor, the beloved Warren Harding. Coolidge’s private secretary, “Ted” Clark, watches, August 5, 1923. Courtesy of Getty Images.

On the Presider-in-Chief

It is a testament to the vision of our Framers that a unitary executive, as opposed to a board of legislator-kings, was the model adopted for these United States. It infused the office with not only an individual’s energy but also a personal restraint, resting on the judgment of the one who presides where no one else can. It remains in the care taken by those choosing that officer of our Republic along with the caliber and quality of the man himself whether the burden of responsibility is well suited or poorly matched. Above all, the President must preside. If he fails to do that, he has failed the American people.

Though 45 men have served, we offer a list below of its first 40 to compare the similarities (both major and minor) shared with #30 in the series, President Calvin Coolidge.


President Coolidge at the dedication of Mount Rushmore, August 10, 1927. Courtesy of NPS, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Coolidge is underrated and largely unknown today not because he somehow merited the infamy or did nothing of significance…He actually did quite a lot in his five and a half years in office. He is discounted today because he challenges each American (for him it made no difference the color, the country of origin, or the economic bracket) to do something uncomfortable and downright difficult: to summon a higher citizenship and loftier principles worthy of the country’s blessings. He expects more than we all too often have expected of ourselves. He does this because he knows we are capable of better than what we apathetically settle for personally and politically. He long ago saw through the lie that individuals can do nothing to shatter the way things are. He refused waste in all its forms, including the wasteful mentality that life is merely a “lottery” and everyone else is to blame for your failure to win it. Raised closer to realities than many of us have ever known, Coolidge did not learn these truths from college. He learned them from his own daily experiences on the land, with his family’s stock, and watching their unapologetic example. He first learned character by seeing character at work.

Those who have presided over the Executive Branch in our constitutional system possess a host of colorful examples, good and bad. With Coolidge, it proved a wiser choice than anyone could have realized…primarily because he first succeeded to office on the unfortunate death of his predecessor. Selected for his own worth, the following year, however, Coolidge demonstrated powerfully that the complexities of national leadership had not outgrown the competency of the Framers’ original design. It still worked and he made it look easy: a unitary executive entrusted to preside in office according to his solemn oath, faithfully executing the laws adopted not by some elected royal family nor by a class of those born to govern from Washington. On the contrary, he held office faithfully executing laws passed and granted legitimacy by the people themselves. If the people of the country are disengaged and ambivalent, it will manifest in those they choose to represent them. If the people lack regard for the moral force behind law, the obedience that makes all good things possible, no government can feel it for them. Without that reverence for where laws obtain and secure their validity, no authority on earth can stand.


Photo by Charles D’Emery. Courtesy of NPS, National Park Service.

And so, our list comparing Coolidge with thirty-nine of our Presidents (Note: Only one in this list is currently living. We pause at Ronald Reagan for a couple reasons: a. His great respect for Coolidge forms a natural bookend to the list; and b. He is the last in presidential sequence to step into eternity, as of this piece):

George Washington: Like Coolidge, Washington announced he did not choose to serve again after his second term neared completion.

Adams: Prepared for the Presidency by first serving as second fiddle in the anonymous office of V.P.

Jefferson: Coolidge was the only President born on the Fourth, sharing a lifelong and unique connection to the Declaration.

Madison: Laid the basis for a constitutional respect for dissent and civil liberties out of war.

Monroe: Presided over one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in American history.

J. Q. Adams: Both enjoyed the honor of their fathers, officeholders themselves, seeing them rise to the highest office in the land.

Jackson: Both men stood firmly against nullification as an illegitimate means of correcting Federal laws.

Van Buren: Helped forge the modern party system that Coolidge held was an essential mechanism for a government of consent, platforms of principles built with popular expression.

William H. Harrison: Both men delivered some of the longest Inaugural Addresses in history.

Tyler: Succeeding upon the death of a President, made clear that the succession of power rested firmly in his hands and no one else.

Polk: Outlined his administration’s agenda early and completed his work by the end of that tenure.

Taylor: Presided through Clayton-Bulwer Treaty which laid the basis for legal arbitration of international disputes (a policy Coolidge decisively encouraged) with respect to the sovereignty of smaller American nations – like dismantling the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine under Coolidge.

Fillmore: Both men of plain tastes, the belief in service and humble living over aggrandizing one’s self by office-holding prevailed even after the lures of Washington.  Fillmore, like Coolidge, stands among those Presidents not to retire to a grand estate but to unapologetic, “regular,” Middle Class American living.

Pierce: As with Lincoln, all three lost sons near the outset of their administrations – feeling helpless to halt its devastation.

Buchanan: Like Coolidge, had only one selection to the Supreme Court, a man who would play a not insignificant role in years to come (Nathan Clifford – one a Democrat, chosen to preside over the Electoral Commission by a Republican; In Coolidge’s case, Harlan Stone – a Republican, chosen later as Chief Justice by a Democrat President)

Lincoln: Both lost precious sons during their terms of office, paying the highest cost for the Presidency. Coolidge shared Lincoln’s homely sense of humor and eloquence as a thinker and speechwriter.

Andrew Johnson: Stubbornly defended the right of the Executive appointment power against the Senate’s attempts to interfere.

Grant: Did his work without fanfare, focusing on payment of the Nation’s debt, sound economy, and restoring a peacetime basis to America — defending both the rights of native tribes and former slaves.

Hayes: Both he and Coolidge were enthusiastic advocates of developing technology – from the telephone to the radio and aviation.

Garfield: While Coolidge was not the intellectual Garfield was, both men shared a rich love for great literature and classical learning.

Arthur: Born amongst the hills and valleys of rugged Vermont, yet raised to the White House.

Cleveland: Both unwaveringly guarded the independence of the Executive through adept use of the veto power.

Benjamin Harrison: Advocated peace but prepared the nation for future war, authorizing construction of Navy vessels that would protect America in its next conflict (Harrison for the Spanish-American War; and Coolidge for WWII)

Cleveland (again): Shared his love for fishing – the simple, unadorned art of rod, worm and fish – and engaged in the work of writing articles for popular publications post-presidency.

McKinley: Stood by a high tariff law that protects American labor and investment against cheap goods and low wages.

Theodore Roosevelt: Like Teddy, Coolidge left a strong mark on American conservation, preserving some of our best-loved monuments, battlefields, forests, and parks (Coolidge believed in developing our resources too not merely shutting them off from use or ownership).

Taft: Both saw and addressed the need for government to operate along business and professional standards in budgeting, civil service, and the legal code.

Wilson: Secured a Pact of Peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact) – recognizing American sovereignty and stronger defense – built on law instead of force as the guiding principle.

Harding: Confirmed and extended Harding’s “Normalcy” agenda – developing his own talents for press relations and media use to an art form.

Hoover: Though hardly two men more different in outlook, methods or experiences, both men lost mothers at very young ages (Hoover at 9, Coolidge at 12).

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Few could be as different as these two, yet both men utilized the great potential of the press conference and media to inspire, teach, and accomplish policy. Both men shared a rugged determination and irrepressible perseverance.

Truman: Long before Harry uttered the words, Coolidge held firm to the maxim that the “Buck” stops with him, the Executive.

Eisenhower: Like Ike, Coolidge warned against a permanent military bureaucracy, insisting on adequate defense, leaving America prepared for protection of direct interests not as the world’s policeman or rental army.

Kennedy: Shared a rise from Massachusetts politics, both men believing in strong national security and the power of religious faith in America.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Shared an extensive practical experience as leaders in Senate bodies – state and federal.

Nixon:  Both men believed firmly in the supremacy of the people’s judgment, the Great Silent Majority.

Ford: Succeeded following scandals under his predecessor, facing a recalcitrant Congress eager to capitalize on the polarization.

Carter: As a former State Governor, chosen as one outside Washington’s establishment.

Reagan: Foreshadowed a vision that restored America’s confidence in its ideals and a return to a focus on government at the service of The People instead of people indentured to their government.

On the State of the Union

President Coolidge addressing Congress.

President Coolidge addressing Joint Session of Congress. Courtesy of Getty Images.

“To the Congress of the United States:

“The present state of the Union, upon which it is customary for the President to report to the Congress under the provisions of the Constitution, is such that it may be regarded with encouragement and satisfaction by every American. Our country is almost unique in its ability to discharge fully and promptly all its obligations at home and abroad, and provide for all its inhabitants an increase in material resources, in intellectual vigor and in moral power. The Nation holds a position unsurpassed in all former human experience. This does not mean that we do not have any problems. It is elementary that the increasing breadth of our experience necessarily increases the problems of our national life. But it does mean that if all will but apply ourselves industriously and honestly, we have ample powers with which to meet our problems and provide for I heir speedy solution. I do not profess that we can secure an era of perfection in human existence, but we can provide an era of peace and prosperity, attended with freedom and justice and made more and more satisfying by the ministrations of the charities and humanities of life…

“In my opinion the Government can do more to remedy the economic ills of the people by a system of rigid economy in public expenditure than can be accomplished through any other action… The fallacy of the claim that the costs of government are borne by the rich and those who make a direct contribution to the National Treasury can not be too often exposed. No system has been devised, I do not think any system could be devised, under which any person living in this country could escape being affected by the cost of our government. It has a direct effect both upon the rate and the purchasing power of wages. It is felt in the price of those prime necessities of existence, food, clothing, fuel and shelter. It would appear to be elementary that the more the Government expends the more it must require every producer to contribute out of his production to the Public Treasury, and the less he will have for his own benefit. The continuing costs of public administration can be met in only one way — by the work of the people. The higher they become, the more the people must work for the Government. The less they are, the more the people can work for themselves…


“Anybody can reduce taxes, but it is not so easy to stand in the gap and resist the passage of increasing appropriation bills which would make tax reduction impossible. It will be very easy to measure the strength of the attachment to reduced taxation by the power with which increased appropriations are resisted…

“But it would be idle to expect any such results unless business can continue free from excess profits taxation and be accorded a system of surtaxes at rates which have for their object not the punishment of success or the discouragement of business, but the production of the greatest amount of revenue from large incomes…

“It is axiomatic that our country can not stand still. It would seem to be perfectly plain from recent events that it is determined to go forward. But it wants no pretenses, it wants no vagaries. It is determined to advance in an orderly, sound and common-sense way. It does not propose to abandon the theory of the Declaration that the people have inalienable rights which no majority and no power of government can destroy. It does not propose to abandon the practice of the Constitution that provides for the protection of these rights. It believes that within these limitations, which are imposed not by the fiat of man but by the law of the Creator, self-government is just and wise. It is convinced that it will be impossible for the people to provide their own government unless they continue to own their own property.

“These are the very foundations of America. On them has been erected a Government of freedom and equality, of justice and mercy, of education and charity. Living under it and supporting it the people have come into great possessions on the material and spiritual sides of life. I want to continue in this direction. I know that the Congress shares with me that desire. I want our institutions to be more and more expressive of these principles. I want the people of all the earth to see in the American flag the symbol of a Government which intends no oppression at home and no aggression abroad, which in the spirit of a common brotherhood provides assistance in time of distress” — President Calvin Coolidge, December 3, 1924

President Calvin Coolidge

Courtesy of Getty Images.