On the Beltway Mindset

While more than twenty years would elapse between Calvin Coolidge’s death and the construction of the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495, which surrounds Washington, D.C.), “inside the Beltway” thinking was long established when he stepped onto the national stage in 1920. The powerful hold it exercised on newcomers was no less compelling than it is today. However, unlike many new arrivals, Coolidge never succumbed to its pressures of conformity. This is what makes Coolidge’s eight years in the Nation’s capital all the more impressive. He would deliberately plan to escape Washington as soon as opportunity allowed. Even then, he would confirm summer White House quarters in locations far removed from the District. It was not that he resented the work, for he flourished at even the most mundane of executive responsibilities. It was not that he perpetually vacationed either, for he took the demands of Presidential work with him. To rephrase one of his favorite passages, he determined to be in this world, but not of it.

Thinking on this Beltway mentality as he prepared to leave the White House and go back to life as a private citizen, he was not going to miss the “D.C. culture.” On the contrary, he felt relief to finally go back home — which for the Coolidges meant their half of the rented duplex on 21 Massasoit Street — a word he never used for the Washington political corridor.

Coolidge had this to say in The Autobiography about the Beltway mindset and its opposite, the mindset of the country as a whole,

“In determining upon all his actions, however, the President has to remember that he is dealing with two different minds. One is the mind of the country, largely intent upon its own personal affairs, and, while not greatly interested in the government, yet desirous of seeing it conducted in an orderly and dignified manner for the advancement of the public welfare. Those who compose this mind wish to have the country prosperous and are opposed to unjust taxation and public extravagance. At the same time they have a patriotic pride which moves them with so great a desire to see things well done that they are willing to pay for it. They gladly contribute their money to place the United States in the lead. In general, they represent the public opinion of the land.

     “But they are unorganized, formless, and inarticulate. Against a compact and well drilled minority they do not appear to be very effective. They are nevertheless the great power in our government. I have constantly appealed to them and have seldom failed in enlisting their support. They are the court of last resort and their decisions are final.

     “They are, however, the indirect rather than the direct power. The immediate authority with which the President has to deal is vested in the political mind. In order to get things done he has to work through that agency. Some of our Presidents have appeared to lack comprehension of the political mind. Although I have been associated with it for many years, I always found difficulty in understanding it. It is a strange mixture of vanity and timidity, of an obsequious attitude at one time and a delusion of grandeur at another time, of the most selfish preferment combined with the most sacrificing patriotism. The political mind if the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse. With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial. A few rare souls escape these influences and maintain a vision and a judgment that are unimpaired. They are a great comfort to every President and a great service to their country. But they are not sufficient in number so that the public business can be transacted like a private business.

     “It is because in their hours of timidity the Congress becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities that the President comes more and more to stand as the champion of the rights of the whole country. Organizing such minorities has come to be a well-recognized industry at Washington. They are oftentimes led by persons of great ability, who display much skill in bringing their influences to bear on the Congress. They have ways of securing newspaper publicity, deluging Senators and Representatives with petitions and overwhelming them with imprecations that are oftentimes decisive in securing the passage of bills. While much of this legislation is not entirely bad, almost all of it is excessively expensive. If it were not for the rules of the House and the veto power of the President, within two years these activities would double the cost of the government.”

This is a level of spending for which the Beltway mindset is blissfully negligent, carrying with it a multiplicity of costs incurred on people all across the country. In its protective bubble of narrow perceptions and absence of fault, the Beltway mindset was not merely understood but successfully resisted and ably bypassed by the man who served as our thirtieth President. His most potent strategy was to go directly to the people with integrity and clarity of purpose. He did not win every confrontation but he never became a member of the “Club.” He demonstrated the important lesson that those the people send to Washington can succeed without joining its culture. In fact, adopting the mindset at odds with the rest of the country will but fail in the end.

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One thought on “On the Beltway Mindset

  1. Thank you!
    This passage from Cal’s Autobiography is – I think – one of his most significant and insightful. Thanks especially for the photo which I’ve never seen before. It is as you know of his homecoming to 21 Massasoit Street in March of 1929. “It always rained on my moving days.”

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