As the campaigns for President heat up on the last week heading into the Iowa caucus, are you wondering about the merits of each candidate? Looking for advice? Who better to seek perspective and insight than one of the most successful vote-getters and campaigners in American history? He not only possesses one of the most experienced records in public life (from his local party committee to POTUS) but also retains a winning rate of 20 out of 21 victories whenever his name was placed before the electorate. His success deserves our attention.
He understood the nature of politics like few do, even today. Earning his “spurs” walking neighborhoods and working on the ground, he saw politics as something more than merely a job drawing a paycheck from the people. He accompanied his father as a boy, in the collection of local taxes, and learned early on the very practical realities of government. He saw it as its own form of ministry to others, just as all work was, a high service in the interests and betterment of all the people, through their consent. He rebuked those who debased its value with the use of office for one’s own advancement or the enslavement to expediency.
The office and the oath he took were not mere tools with which to placate constituents or render “lip service” to what some regard as meaningless trappings of our Republic’s institutions. To him, they meant something personal and deeply important in the execution of the responsibilities entrusted to him day to day. He was pledging himself before humanity and God that the work given him to do would be done faithfully, honorably, and competently.
He would not abide the surrender of that public promise to the searing pressures of any interest, however influential or financed, or retreat in fear for his political future. If he lost, he lost, but he would retain his honor and defend the integrity of the trust temporarily placed in him. For, he knew, all power is fleeting. What mattered was not how long one retained that power but how one mastered himself and served others in the conduct of the office entrusted to him. He would not help bring reproach on any office, however menial. All offices demanded our best. As such, he secured greater confidence and accumulating trust in the estimation of the people. They knew in him was a servant who would rightly administer the greatest office they could bestow.
Starting among his neighbors and rising to the Presidency, he was found to be worthy of their confidence in every task. He possessed a broad range of experience not only in the judiciary as a city solicitor but also as a legislator and executive. He left each office more regarded and beloved than upon entering it, leaving the White House with the highest popularity of any occupant in more than a generation (and, it could be argued, most of our Presidents since).
He knew how to win from the local race to the national campaign. But that knowledge and assurance came from his faith in God as much as in his love for people and respect for what made America so successful. He understood that each of us was but directed by a Power greater than any of us. We were simply in the guidance of a Providence that equips and fits us to meet the challenges of our time. It was so much more than just getting the right economic plan or the perfect social legislation (the latter not an issue in his day). It rested on eternal truths that material advancement could merely reflect not create let alone perpetuate the real progress of people and sound government.
All the prosperity and affluence America was experiencing would evaporate as the morning fog without the requisite advancement of character. The cultivation of the spiritual things had to keep ahead of the march of material improvements. It would leave humanity stunted, unprepared, and ultimately dehumanized, if these truths did not receive their due regard beyond the increasing accumulation of things. Entering modernity would prove to be America’s greatest moral challenge, he knew, testing every soul, both those present and those to come. Man was more than so many organisms, but had a spiritual nature that politics must serve not be served by whatever it cost the smallest, most forgotten person.
He cherished the individual but did not blindly adopt the idea that each of us can be a self-sufficient island unto him or herself. We could not long survive under such a regime. It would prove just as repressive and stagnant as the tyranny of a bureaucratic efficiency, which he doggedly fought in his day.
His experience did not erode his sense of perspective or transform who he was. He knew himself and his limitations better than many who have occupied the Presidency. As such, he avoided many of the delusional pitfalls that ensnare other men. He retained his humility and rather than credit a greatness in himself, he recognized America needs and does best with many leaders. One man’s domination is a betrayal of our principles and institutions. Thus, he stepped away when popular acclaim and political power (in his hands) was at its zenith.
He developed his own public persona, as all successful people do, but it was no less a sign of artificiality or lack of character than it was for Washington or Lincoln. He was a master communicator, who in many ways, is the equal and political “father” of The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. When the Congress stood intransigently against the benefits of his policies, he went right to the people, often making his case through the new medium of radio. He carefully crafted his own speeches, knowing that this was a fundamental part of any President’s duties, while understanding that the influence of the Presidential word must be used sparingly and conscientiously.
He downplayed the role of a “super-fixer” who can magically solve all the nation’s problems. No President, however compelling a personality, could do that, he knew. At the same time, he used the Presidential platform to educate and inform the country that most solutions rested very properly in the hands of the people themselves. That was both the price of freedom and the reward of self-government. Hence, he avoided the disappointment of campaign pledges that usually go unfulfilled while surprising most people with his ability to accomplish so much without fanfare. He did while others talked about doing.
He exercised the powers of office responsibly, employing the veto (both the regular and pocket) with devastating effect to countless attempts by Congress to pass preferential legislation and other harmful measures. He asserted the independence of the Executive to hire and fire its officers, refusing to micromanage the work rightfully given to others, but letting all know that the final decision for national administration rests with the President, where “the buck” must stop.
At the same time, he was too shrewd and observant to be caught in a “gotcha” scenario that so often plagues our candidates these days. When others tried to force him between a political “rock and hard place,” he exercised the art of employing actions to speak for him. When in the campaign of 1924, a push to publicly condemn the Klan was fast becoming a sort of litmus test for qualification, he gave them no direct statement to yank from context but took to the road. He would give his clear support for each of the groups the Klan despised: Catholics, Jews, and black Americans. This relegated the Klan to the deserved realm of absurd insignificant and, consequently, its membership and respectability dropped for the rest of the decade.
He willingly appeared (throughout his public life) with all kinds of folks in photos, as a matter of course, not as political opportunism. He did so because color or ethnicity didn’t matter to him; People were people. We were all children of the same Father. At the same time, he grasped the power of the image. He used the art of public image even when it invoked laughter (as with the chaps and ten-gallon hat) or portrayed him as dour and “Silent.” He took care never to disgrace the Office, though, knowing that the image was as much a part of getting the day’s work done and exemplifying what the country needed, as it was in George Washington’s day.
So, as we consider the merits of each candidate, whether at the Presidential level or in the sheriffs, county commissioners, aldermen, representatives, and other officers up for election this year, we would do well to seek the wisdom and tap the experience of Calvin Coolidge. We need not search far and wide for snippets of his advice and insight, we can find his help in one central place: Keeping Cool on the Campaign Trail: 101 of ‘Silent’ Cal’s Insights on Voting, Campaigning, and Governing. Pick up your copy in print, Kindle, or audio today.
As you read, you’ll find Cal talks about many of the issues that simply don’t get raised or questions that simply don’t get asked these days. Perhaps bringing Cal Coolidge with you to the next meet and greet, Townhall forum, or campaign event will not only raise the caliber of our public debate but also prove a mighty force in forging better citizens and better leadership, starting (as Coolidge would say) with ourselves. Perhaps it can also instill much higher expectations for a better future than we have seen in our neighborhoods, our counties, our states, and across the nation.