Mark Sullivan, a well-known Washington correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune, reported this exchange at the culmination of his efforts to arrange a meeting between Robert Frost and President Coolidge. He started by suggesting to the Chief Executive that he bestow recognition upon some of New England’s poets and authors, as President Theodore Roosevelt had of accomplished literary and scientific individuals when in office,
“Just what poets do you have in mind?” asked the President.
“Oh, any of the New England ones–Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay–she was born in Maine,” replied the journalist, now sure that his subtle tactic of dropping Frost’s name was about to work on Coolidge.
“Frost? Robinson?” queried the President, reeling Sullivan in as if he were trying to recall them.
“I never heard of them. There was a fellow in Boston when I was in the legislature that used to write poems–he was a newspaper man–his name was Denis McCarthy.”
It was all the funnier because McCarthy was barely known beyond Boston circles, was a native of Ireland, and had helped establish (with Frost, no less) the New England Poetry Club. Thoroughly amused by the attempt at influencing Coolidge, Sullivan would pass this account along to Frost, who, according to Lawrance Thompson, “enjoyed repeating it.” Consequently, Sullivan was not the only unsuspecting “victim” of Coolidge’s sharp wit from this occasion. Coolidge never could be cajoled into “buying” what others tried to sell him. It mattered not who it was. It would be his decision alone and no one could influence him otherwise. He was a master of the art of saying “no.” To preserve that independence, he would employ many a straight-faced punch line on those who never saw it coming…and many who never got it afterward. Getting the response was but secondary to Coolidge. It was delivering the retort that furnished the primary enjoyment to him. He certainly got the better of Washington’s best that day.
Sullivan, Mark. “Our Times: The Twenties.” New York: Scribner, 1936.
Thompson, Lawrance. “Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938.” New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.