On the World Beyond Politics

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When looking back on America’s past Presidents, we are reminded that few – if any – were not hard workers. Each in his own way gave everything he had to give to its calling. For some, unfortunately, the rigors of the Office demanded more than the individual could spare. Some were broken by it. Some left a greater impression on it than others. Others were extinguished before their work, seemingly, reached completion. Each, to an inescapable degree, have been forever shaped by the weight of its responsibility and obligation. At times, it has been feared that the burden has become too great for one person. After the sunset of Wilson’s administration and the death of Harding, many wondered whether the Presidency was now a sure killer.

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As the Roman imperium aged, it was believed the system had grown too complex and the leadership potential too small since the giants of Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan. To mitigate this, the Empire  was divided into halves and later quarters before “bigger men” arose to disprove the notion that the Empire was ungovernable as a unified whole once more. The Presidency of the United States has likewise faced vital challenges through the years but always emerges vindicated as an Office best left in the hands of one individual, not to a committee.

The scope and scale of the problems our Presidents have faced move hand-in-hand with the confidence Americans place in whomever currently occupies the Office. Confidence itself constantly balances between a cord of steel and a thread of silk. Sometimes, the problems faced are very great but handled so deftly that in hindsight they become mere footnotes in the textbooks of time. Other problems are more than what smaller men can meet. Ultimately, men requisite for the occasion are raised up for the work that is needed. Still, there are times when foolishness is entertained and wisdom disdained, when recklessness prevails and perspective retreats. History, after all, is not a mountain of foregone effects or predetermined outcomes. It is the result of countless little decisions made by all creatures great and small.

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The President in South Dakota, summer 1927.

Coolidge’s example illustrates how great men can appear in nondescript packaging. His deft handling of some of the biggest problems the United States ever faced are largely footnotes in specialized histories now. They were not small challenges at the time. This is all the more remarkable because he did not set out to “fix” or “solve” anything. Yet, much got done. All this despite having no gift for oratory and certainly never looking the part. Harding was the one who looked Presidential yet he lacked the mental prowess for the job. Cal certainly never hailed himself as anything great or transformational either. Wilson was the one who took up the mantle of international peacemaker yet he lacked a practical flexibility to adjust himself to changing circumstances. All of Cal’s training in life and political office embedded an unshakable repugnance to self-importance or indispensability. He loathed everything about that attitude, being ever-vigilant himself lest it germinate within. This was a major reason behind his refusal to run again in 1928. No one was irreplaceable. No President was a savior. Our only Savior came two millennia ago. For Coolidge, this was not cynicism but a firm faith that leadership is not a limited resource emanating from one person, one time or one place but continually drawing from an abundant, renewable supply that can be discovered and developed in many individuals. No one has an exclusive claim to it.

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A record musky brought to Superior, to the delight of President Coolidge, Wisconsin, summer 1928. Photo credit: Quiet Lakes Association.

As such, Washington was not nor should it be the sun around which America’s daily life should orbit. The real America was out there…in the rest of a diverse and diligent country. It lived in the generous hearts of good neighbors, engaged citizens, devout churches, volunteer organizations, civic clubs, trade and commercial associations, schools, cultural groups, and strong homes. The stronger those pillars of American ideals were, if continually built up, the more Washington could be outshined and surpassed in power and importance with no detrimental consequences for the future. America did not live by Washington alone. Coolidge was no anti-government purist. He understood the increasing complexity of the Federal system better than many and observed the upward trend was irreversible, but only to an extent. The Coolidge-Mellon tax plans argued for fiscal balance that avoided both extremes: (1) Confiscatory rates that encouraged tax havens for the wealthy and discouraged earning potential for those least able to bear them, lower incomes; as well as (2) Eliminating the taxing authority altogether and repealing all laws concerning revenue collection. Coolidge and Mellon rejected both extremes. Neither would have achieved the whopping 26% decrease of national indebtedness, accompanied by six $1 billion surpluses every year of Coolidge’s tenure. No President since has seen more than two surpluses back-to-back, the last time being Eisenhower in 1956-1957.

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President Eisenhower, the last Chief Executive since Coolidge to preside over back-to-back budget surpluses.

Coolidge understood the difference defined in the Constitution was for a limited government, not necessarily equivalent to a small one. Fewer personnel did not a less expensive or less abusive government make. More than this, however, Coolidge saw a whole world outside politics. Politics should not be the end-all of existence. There were certainly “news junkies” then as there are now. Even some Presidents ate, slept, and breathed politics. James K. Polk, Speaker of the House turned Chief Executive, comes to mind. He accomplished everything he set out to do in a single term but, in so doing, destroyed his health and died shortly after leaving office.

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President James K. Polk (“Young Hickory,” in honor of predecessor “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson). Portrait by G. P. A. Healy, 1858. Polk had already been dead nine years by that time.

Coolidge himself would not enjoy a long post-presidency, having expended so much of himself while in office. Yet, he saw a confrontation coming – he knew not when – but he observed a crossroads ahead when the real America outside of D.C., the cultural, religious, and civic institutions in every neighborhood, small town and large city, would be forced to reckon with a sprawling, homogenizing, unrestrained federal government for daily subsistence or else face annihilation. Coolidge saw the danger Washington’s cold, humorless politics posed on the diverse range of interests and collaborations at work every day across the country. He escaped Washington at every opportunity to dedicate cultural monuments across the nation not only to explore more of America but to find refreshment among its diverse people engaging in the kaleidoscope of their endeavors.

By decentralizing politics and cultivating life outside it in countless ways, he hoped, Americans might forestall the surrender of absolutely everything to the political mind so dominant in Washington. Instead, he wanted Americans to keep a healthy balance of what was most important, retain their creativity and adaptability, their humanity and faith, their sense of humor and their “horse sense,” to keep contributing to the world that really does flourish outside politics, and find the blessings of liberty and fulfillment of character on a thousand frontiers still awaiting those brave enough to pioneer them.

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President and Mrs. Coolidge (seated at left) in coastal Georgia during the winter of 1928. They enjoy a traditional evening oyster roast around a fire pit while the singers of Georgia Industrial College (standing at right) entertain. Photo credit: Georgia State Archives.

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