“Dress Up: What We Lost in the Casual Revolution” by G. Bruce Boyer

The Coolidge Family

While there are elements of the 1920s that baffle and even offend today’s hypersensitive climate, the fashion of that era remains as popular and alluring as ever. People across all spectra find the suits, dresses, hats, and accouterments of those Roaring Twenties (wherever they are seen) sends a vivid and powerful statement. It demonstrates the careful investment in personal improvement that drove much of that decade’s attitudes about appearance.  Of course, every generation has vanity and covetousness but it was with a thought to those with whom we associate and interact that gave dressing up its place of importance in the social sphere. It exhibited a level of respect for others and the humble recognition that individual expression was not the fulfilling or all-encompassing virtue that it so often pretends to be nowadays.

It is again cool to dress up because of the clarity of place and purpose it inseparably provides. It shows you are worthy of being taking seriously enough for me to dress up, to invest quality in you not just the “gift” of my presence.

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President and Mrs. Coolidge welcoming Charles Lindbergh and his mother, upon his historic return to the United States following his solo crossing of the Atlantic, June 12, 1927. Lindbergh, no fan of formal clothes, wore the suit picked out for him by the President during those public appearances.

Calvin Coolidge, born in one of the most remote corners of the country – Plymouth Notch, Vermont – understood this exceedingly well. He understood the care which one shows for one’s appearance corresponds to the care one demonstrates for other people, especially the lowest and weakest among us. In defiance of every social convention, we console ourselves in the illusion that we are freer than our ancestors only to discover that our “freedom of expression” conveys both our contempt for other “free” individuals and also our indifference to that fact.

Some, when they learn that Calvin Coolidge selected what his teenage boys would wear each day, are horrified at so invasive a repression of personal freedom. While it is easy to fault this father for his severity at times, the importance he placed on one’s dress is missed in the shuffle. True, he was President of the United States, a role we still feel warrants formality, at least during “working hours.” Yet, when it came to his appearance, Coolidge made no such separation between the highest office in the land and his lifestyle. He refused to go anywhere (even as a younger man) not dressed at least one notch above the occasion. After the White House years, he even forgot his hat once and had to coordinate with his secretary to retrieve it, too embarrassed to step out of the car minus a complete outfit.

CC chopping wood

Wearing his grandfather’s frock as he worked on the family farm was as much an honor he felt due to its original owner as it was an expression that clothes declared role and purpose. It was the natural and suitable attire at work on the farm. When the press misunderstood the gesture and wrongly attributed it to a public pose, he would not wear the garment again but ever after wore what was not suited to chores but had been his chosen outfit all of his life: a daily rotation of formal dress shirts, suits, shoes, and ties. He would even appear with the gift of a headdress in South Dakota and ride in ten gallon hat on horseback without ever shedding the full suit.


We may laugh at what seems so absurd now about these instances but our cavalier disregard for public obligations and utter callousness for what is socially appropriate is no less ridiculous today.

His boys, John and Calvin Jr., would be expected to demonstrate that same courtesy and regard for others wherever they went, whatever the occasion. They were the children of the President of the United States. To the Coolidges, this had nothing to do with the specific people who occupied the office at any given time. This was not about making the boys’ parents look good. It was about the social debt the whole family owed the Office, the people of the country, and a standard of excellence in life as a whole. They were dressed up not to impress but to serve. It was for others not for themselves or some absolute right of expression that guided their care for appearance.

The Casual Revolution has certainly transformed society but as Mr. Boyer observes at First Things, with liberation does not come fulfillment. We are finding what Coolidge knew (and was obvious to most of his generation) had merit all along. Every time my family and I go in our 20s garb to introduce Coolidge, we see the electric response dressing up still means today.

3a33251v CC Walter johnson shaking hands at Griffith Stadium

Absorbed by the shattering of anything outside the ever-expanding scope of individual rights, the weakest and smallest are being crowded out at every turn. Some insecurely attack anyone who faults one’s appearance as if it were a fascistic intrusion on one’s very being. What this rock of offense exposes is the right of the strong to trample the weak without social consequence, no guilt imputed or redress due. This says, in effect: My comfort is paramount without a thought given or needed to anyone else, anywhere. A culture that has embraced complete moral egalitarianism has arrived at the brutal destination that no one is deserving of any respect or consideration. I owe nothing to anyone, we scream, so why not advertise (by my appearance) my indifference to that fact before all the world? I am more important than both you and this occasion.

When we rediscover that each of us lives not to him or herself alone, however, but has public and private responsibilities to others, we dress not to selfishly fulfill a god of absolute personal expression, who remains blindly unconcerned about the impact of our actions or the message of our appearance. Dressing up repays that honor befitting the occasion and due humanity. We dress to meet the one debt we owe more than any other: to love one another. We dress in recognition of the God who made us all in His image and calls us out of our indifference and indulgence to empty self, as Christ did, for our neighbor.


“Exploiting the Presidency” by Cal Thomas


A session from the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon at Yorba Linda, California, 1977. Photo courtesy of http://www.pophistorydig.com.

Cal Thomas, over at Townhall, reflects on how our newest arrival to the “Ex-President’s Club” is already perpetuating the disturbing trend of Richard Nixon (as Joe McGuinness put it in his 1968 book) of “selling the presidency.” Nixon’s $1 million interview with David Frost in 1977 simply built upon what his old boss had initiated in 1958. That was when “Ike” Eisenhower signed the Former Presidents Act, granting the nucleus of benefits that would begin to accumulate around Presidents in retirement. Even so, Nixon never took speaker’s fees beyond that recorded interview. Once he sold the interview to Frost, he did not charge audiences the privilege of hearing him talk in person. He spoke for free.

While “Ike” found the Secret Service detail at his Gettysburg farm unnecessary, and spoke publicly on occasion, the real precedent was set in 1977 by Gerald Ford who took up the plush speaker’s circuit that would continue with Reagan (who gave two speeches in Japan for $2 million) and would become almost a trademark industry under the Bushes and Clintons.

What to do with our former Presidents is not a new question. It has been a concern long before this trend started. However, this precedent – like a growing parasite – demands greater and greater resources simply to sustain more and more privileges from its host. The $200,000 plus pensions, lucrative speaker’s fees, transition staff, stipends, lifetime Secret Service protection for entire families, the increasing extravagance of presidential libraries all point to something far beyond the dignity accorded a statesman. Rather, this exploitation of the Presidential office illustrates a measure of contempt for it and, even more, for the people who will be paying these expenditures long after every one of us is gone. Already yoked to a $20 trillion debt, this helps destroy the Office and the selfless service it was originally intended to embody.


William Howard Taft

Former President Taft once joked to the literary Lotos Club in New York that there would be less a burden to the country if the post-White House life involved chloroform and the lotos fruit (a reference to Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” applied by Taft to mean Presidents should surrender to perpetual sleep, drifting into dreams from which they “return no more”).


Former President Harry Truman

Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry Truman, was clear: “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”

Ironically, he would agree with Calvin Coolidge, who quietly retired to his $32-dollar a month duplex on Massasoit Street in Northampton in 1929. In fact, the Coolidges would be compelled to move simply to get away from the unremitting attentions they now had pressing upon them from the public. When the media reported that their new $40,000 home, The Beeches, had 16 rooms, Grace (knowing there were only 12) wryly retorted, “There are four rooms we can’t find.” When filling out a membership card to the Washington Press Club in 1932, for “Occupation” Cal put “Retired.” Then, in characteristic fashion, under “Comments,” elaborated, “And glad of it.” He refused to take money for public speaking and delivered the few speeches he did give at his own expense. Agreeing reluctantly to work with private news syndicates, he conscientiously composed a daily column for a time, and wrote articles, carefully tallying the word counts and readily returning funds if articles did not “make the cut.” The Coolidges simply would not exploit the Office for their own benefit.


The Coolidges at the July 4th festivities in Plymouth Notch, Vermont in 1931. Photo courtesy of the Alton H. Blackington Collection (PH 061). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

Coolidge was observing the standard befitting all former Presidents, when he wrote, “It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people…” With relief, he would continue, “Fortunately, they are not supported at public expense after leaving office, so they are not expected to set an example encouraging to a leisure class.” Instead, he would say, “It is becoming for them to engage in some dignified employment where they can be of service as others are.” The Coolidges, with no pension, no Secret Service, no transition staff, no circuit fees, lived as they always had: modestly and simply. It is likely that Cal often remembered his father’s admonition, reiterated since his boyhood, on the humiliation of chickens, trying to roost higher than one’s station, who are eventually corrected by the pecking order.

Perhaps Americans should reassess whether they are supporting a burgeoning series of royal families at unlimited cost or whether we intend to keep a Republic any longer.



On the Universities

Calvin Coolidge, Us President 1923

A University education used to mean something. It imparted more than some scrap of paper (and the requisite cavern of debt to start life) at the end of four or more years. It meant more than a good vocation. It rewarded the diligent and the disciplined with a lifetime all the fuller for what it could give not what it could get. Political campaigns only expose the barren wasteland that all too many universities have become.

Today we see more professors invested in the short-term of partisan activism than the long-term devotion for truth, beauty, and virtue. Instead of being rich gardens engaged in the active cultivation of servant-minded leaders ministering in a thousand ways to the good of others, public and private, many universities are thinly disguised prisons. All too many bar the spirit of inquiry as it naturally strays from political orthodoxy. Universities are too often engaged in the vanity of congratulating themselves for their liberation from all the “sins” of the past while in reality, they are running headlong, like mythic Oedipus, into some of the worst of them – with the height of self-deception. They are busily shackling human potential and demanding every thought march in conformity with the pronouncements of the holy church of Academia. Campuses are adorned with every aesthetic value but like white-washed tombs, what about the human souls within them?


Calvin Coolidge spoke extensively on education throughout his life of public service. It concerned him not only as the last President to enjoy the training of a classical education but for how the institutions were changing to the detriment of students, teachers, and the nation as a whole. He could see that while a certain measure of it was but a reflection of the culture, universities were not heading forward in a productive direction but backward toward ignorance, bigotry, and nihilism.

Universities had started as repudiations of the closed mind, narrow temper, and callous conscience that anyone could pick up without trying. Universities had been formed by those seeking far more: an appreciation of the sweeping vistas of essential truths, nourishing not only an open mind and unprejudiced heart but a selfless soul.

The students and professors who began centuries ago the project we call Scholasticism were not about mastering trivia, progressing to the place where finally in 2017 we would be worthy enough to take courses like Gender Studies and Global Poverty and Practice. They were searching for the fundamentals and essential foundation stones that moved the world – in all its designed beauty and variety. They sought to distinguish the great ideas from the non-essential ones, to drink from the vibrant head waters of universals not the stagnant pool of useless particulars. They set out to understand the world comprehensively, to glimpse the whole cloth not just a few fibers of it, knowing that everything and everyone has each a proper place, a designed purpose, and a role to carry out in a universal plan. It was a plan not worked out through mortal hands but woven together and set down in the mind of Almighty God before the world was. The quest means something because He first gave it meaning.

VP CC at desk

Life was not to end in meaninglessness and despair. History was not some endless cycle; It was going somewhere. The universities reminded us of those realities. They were not merely engaged in theoretical or abstract exercises but engaging in the very heart of life’s fundamentals. The universities held aloft an oasis offering refreshment every time we return to a consideration of those truths.

If we kept to the essential currents and avoided the shoals and rocks of outlying peripherals, we would discover eternal principles. We would preserve things infinitely more valuable than the ongoing pursuit of particulars that keeps luring us further away from redemption and deeper into a damning web of our own making. With eternity drawing ever nearer, we would do well to return once again to the wellspring at which the universities began and find that truth has not failed us, we have failed it.

CC in NJ 1922

Vice President Calvin Coolidge with citizens of Elizabeth, New Jersey, July 1, 1922. Courtesy of the Elizabeth Public Library.

Coolidge understood all this and so in one of many messages he gave on the powerful influence of the universities, he wrote this in July 1922:

“Our higher institutions of learning are not the apex of our system of education. They are its base. All the people look up to their influence and inspiration. They must be under the guidance of men of piety and men of an open mind. They must continue their indispensable service to the cause of freedom by bringing all the people unto a knowledge of the truth…America lays no claim to the discovery of the theory of freedom or self-government. Its glory lies in the ability of its people to put those theories into practice, not merely the power to state them but the capacity to live up to them.

“The inalienable right of man to life and liberty and to be protected in the enjoyment of the rewards of his own industry have their source in religion. The rights of man as man, the dignity of the individual, find their justification in that source alone. Whenever its teachings were fully admitted, the rest followed as a matter of course. It was religion that came first; then the establishment of free government…”

The universities would do well to navigate free of the mire they have courted and that currently ossifies all in contact with it. This is why starting anew on proven foundation stones is perhaps the one way out of the corroded and crumbling mess. There is no salvaging the wreck left by too many institutions committed to riding over the cliff with Postmodernism at the wheel. Starting over, we would discover a revitalization long absent if we dared embrace the spirit and courage the founders of the original universities had. These new institutions would resume the enterprise of growth that truth makes possible and find rest for parched human souls once again.

6192823293_9e031897ef_b CC in Vermont Hills