I have to admit, the collection of Bobblehead figures has never caught on with me. It may not approach the kitsch of “Dogs Playing Poker” (and its subsequent spinoffs) by that other Coolidge, Cassius Marcellus (begun when the future President was a junior in college), but nothing of the kind has ever crossed our threshold. That may change for this collector of all things Coolidge. The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame & Museum has been preparing to release a limited edition set of eighteen forgotten — several of whom are no less worthy — POTUSes (or is it POTOI?) in the coming months. I am particularly pleased to see that Calvin Coolidge is currently sold out. The figures are 8 inches tall. I am glad to see that the collection also includes Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, William Howard Taft (likewise sold out), and Warren Harding.
“When Americans cease to admire Abraham Lincoln the Union which he perpetuated will be no more. The strongest proof of the continuance of this admiration is the ceaseless publication of books about him. His greatness increases with each exploration. It has not yet been bounded. The authority of his word grows with time. He spoke and lived the truth.
“The practice of canonization is inherent in the human mind. Men of the past grow into giants, history takes the form of the good old days, all deeds become heroic. This has advantages, it is inspiring; but it is not human experience, and it is not true. There is too much written of what men think of Lincoln in proportion to that which tells what he was. He does not need to be glorified. That but degrades. To idealize him destroys him. The greatest inspiration his life can give is in the whole truth about him. Leave him as he is. He came from the soil, he was born of the people, he lived their life. To make it all heroic, like giving him drawing-room airs, destroys the mighty strength of his example…
“No man in American history, not even Washington, compares with Lincoln in dealing with the practical affairs of his day. He employed no magic. He was no visionary. He was no child of fortune. He was the creation of an adversity that walked hand in hand with him from the cradle to the grave. In that struggle he found his strength. He too grew in stature and in wisdom. Out of an experience of sorrow and pain he gained the power to look into the heart of things.
“For our burdens which he bore, for our sorrows which he comforted, for that character of surpassing strength and beauty, for the courage he showed, for the devotion to duty, for the patience, the hope, the steadfastness, for the new glory that his life revealed, for the immortal example of all that which we call Abraham Lincoln, men well may continue to study him, to love and praise him, and to give thanks for him to the Source of all power.”
Calvin Coolidge, excerpt from The Preface to Carl Schurz’s Abraham Lincoln, An Essay (1920, Houghton Mifflin)
The courtship letters of our Presidents provide some of the most delightful, completely approachable — so wonderfully human — insights into the individuals who have risen to national leadership across our history. Yet, in so many cases (and often because they are private glimpses into the men and women who exchanged them) they have not survived for posterity. Many collections met destruction at the hands of their creators to keep what they shared with each other where it was intended: for their eyes, hearts, and minds alone. There was no obligation to pass them down to any other soul. Yet, some have. Among those which do exist, we can include the letters of Calvin and Grace Coolidge. We can respectfully enjoy what these authors, without compulsion, so willingly share with outsiders: the courage to stand open and vulnerable to whomever reads their words, the sincerity behind each sentiment, the candor and humor of their expressions, all manifesting a genuine affection and authentic love for each other. These letters, preserved by the Vermont Historical Society, are not full of sensational or salacious revelations as you might expect with other Presidents. Nor do they need to be. What gives them their surpassing value is not what a gossip columnist appraises important but because they nonetheless form a powerful line of evidence that shatters many a mistaken perception having frozen itself around the allegedly vapid, parched, uninteresting Calvin Coolidge. They shatter the myth constructed of him by those who never bothered, in their haste to defend his political opponents, to countenance the man (or his lady) on their own terms.
Predictably, these politically blind guides of the blind continue to lead the unsuspecting into one pit after another where the Coolidges are concerned. For them, if there is any occasion to pause at the Coolidge legacy at all, it is to heap more scorn upon him and repeat the old, tired, groundless shibboleths of campaign activists from the 1930s and 40s. The destination, long advocated by Socrates, that we follow truth wherever it leads is utterly incoherent to these attack dogs for “the cause.” All they know is what rhetoric to keep churning to advance the latest partisan objective never how to process evidence that challenges the assumed doctrines of their faith. They become so accustomed to seeing and accusing monsters among us at every turn — what Coolidge calls the artificial — that they lose sight of the natural, the eternal, the real. So trained in the superficial, they lose touch with what it is to err, to show grace, to be awkward, to understand humor, to be human. The letters of Cal & Grace provide that touchstone, that reconnection with the qualities and perspectives that are unfettered by time. The more we reckon with the primary source evidence, the more we will see the scales fall from our own eyes which have obscured who they really are for so long. We will increasingly appreciate that the Coolidges are not what the caricatures have so pervasively concealed but will see them as the authentic human beings they were, and still are, thanks to the words (and souls behind them) they share with us all.
Happy Valentine’s Day (minus 1) and Happy President’s Day!