From Silence to Sound

 

When the oldest members of what we now call the “Greatest Generation” were yet infants and young children, the “old folks” of their time shared a glimpse of themselves, their memories growing up, and some of their experiences for posterity. They did this through the wonderfully new medium of talking pictures, sharing a brief look across seven or eight (and for some, even nine or ten) decades. They were in the same generation as President Coolidge’s father and grandfathers. For those who could look back on the preceding century, coming into the world just as the 1820s were winding down, there remained much to share. Life may not have been easy but it was life, beautiful and precious all the same. For them, it was the War of 1861-1865 under which many passed from childhood to maturity, forever shaping who they were and what they would become. They come from everywhere, California to Florida, New York City to Chicago, having watched these places go from quiet fields and unpaved paths (traversed by horse and buggy) to pavement and car, expansive skylines and bustling developments. It is a timely reminder that we are not as far from the big events of history as we may sometimes feel. Take a moment and listen, perhaps even reminisce with or appreciate again those in our memory who have shared a little of themselves with us.

On the Roosevelt Spirit

“Great men are the ambassadors of Providence sent to reveal to their fellow men their unknown selves. To them is granted the power to call forth the best there is in those who come under their influence. Sometimes they have come as great captains, commanders of men, who have hewed out empires, sometimes as statesmen, ministering to the well-being of their country, sometimes as painters and poets, showing new realms of beauty, sometimes as philosophers and preachers, revealing to the race ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ but always as inspirers of noble action, translating high ideals into the practical affairs of life. There is something about them better than anything they do or say. If measured at all, they are to be measured in the responsive action of what others do or say. They come and go, in part a mystery, in part the simplest of all experience, the compelling influence of the truth. They leave no successor. The heritage of greatness descends to the people” — Vice President Calvin Coolidge, Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association, New York City, January 23, 1921

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TR with the “Rough Riders” atop San Juan Hill, 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed the fray of battle. Had he lived to see D-Day, it is difficult not to visualize him forcing his way somehow onto the beaches at Normandy, even at eighty-six. It is natural that a man of his irrepressible and epic personality would likewise face equally epic enemies and transmit that passion for the fight to his sons and grandsons. He instilled both his determined sense of public service and selfless courage in his four boys: Ted, Kermit, Archie, and Quentin. Even youngest daughter Ethel would serve as a nurse in World War I. All four would follow their father in wartime service during that same conflict, Ted and Archie on the ground in France with the AEF, Kermit with the British in what is modern Iraq, and Quentin in the Army Air Corps fighting over France until being shot down in 1918, the only Presidential son killed in the war. None of them had to serve but something greater than their security and personal well-being was at stake. Besides, they were Roosevelts. The other three would return with wounds that remained with them into the next World War.

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The Roosevelts in 1907: Kermit, Archie, TR, Ethel, mother Edith, Quentin, and Ted. Obviously absent is TR’s oldest, Alice, who had married Nicholas Longworth two years before the picture taken here. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

When asked about placing a monument to his youngest boy near the site of Quentin’s last battle, the former President replied with a grief deeper than his own loss: “And who will build the monument for all the other sons who died?” The death of Quentin rapidly aged his father and by the following year “the old lion” (as Archie referred to him) was gone as well.

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TR hammering a point home on the campaign trail, 1900. Photo credit: Getty Images.

While all TR’s sons continued to build on their father’s legacy, it would be 5′ 8″ Ted who most closely resembled the father in word and deed. Archie would go into the oil business while Kermit went into shipping. It would be Ted, however, who followed in the Roosevelt tradition as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, beginning in the Harding administration in 1921 and ending in September 1924 as the balance of Harding’s term neared conclusion under President Coolidge. Now a Colonel, like his father, Ted would try for Governor of New York but lose to Al Smith. Done with politics for now, Ted’s tireless spirit stepped away from public service and took up exploring the remote wilds of Africa and Asia with his brother Kermit during the rest of the decade. Ted would make his comeback in the Hoover administration, serving first as Governor of Puerto Rico and then Governor-General of the Philippines until July 1933. He would then go into business with American Express and Doubleday Publishing but as war seemed imminent again in 1940, TR’s namesake began preparations for reactivating in the Army.

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“Ted” Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1921. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Son Ted would go back to the European Theater while Archie would fight in the Pacific. Peers found little to commend about Ted when it came to military discipline and professional decorum. Yet, his men adored him. His superiors thought even that went a little too far for the needs of discipline in the ranks. But, as they would discover, the future would call for just his kind of style at a necessary moment in history. What he lacked in polish, he made up for in unyielding courage. His old wounds left him arthritic and so, now a Brigadier General, Roosevelt carried a cane. In characteristic fashion, it was Ted who insisted he be assigned among the very first soldiers to make their landings on the beaches of Normandy on this day in 1944. His youngest son, another Quentin, would be among the first to arrive just up the beachhead at Omaha. Ted’s commander thought the old General would never survive. Ted not only survived the landing but proved vital to its success. It was the sight of him calmly traversing Utah beach under fire with nothing but cane and pistol in hand, welcoming troops of the 8th Infantry and 70th Tank as they came in, recounting for them some of his favorite stories of his father’s bravery and encouraging each new wave arriving at this westernmost anchor of five coordinated landings (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword).

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Approaching Utah Beach, June 6, 1944. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The oldest man (age 56) and the only General shoulder-to-shoulder with those coming ashore that day, he originally arrived one mile from the planned location. It made no difference to old Ted. “We’ll start the war from here,” he declared. He would go on to direct landing craft, armored vehicles, and infantry ensuring that each unit went where it needed to be. As the days unfolded, he continued to direct the advance of the 4th Infantry Division with the help of his jeep, “Rough Rider.” Had he not been there to bolster the men and bring the plan into fruition at that critical point in the early morning hours of June 6, however, would we be commemorating a victorious D-Day seventy-five years later?

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President Coolidge and Roosevelt, September 30, 1924. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

 

History often turns on the seemingly counter-productive qualities of leaders like Ted Roosevelt. To the surprise of “experts” they turn out to be men fitted for the occasion with just what is needed at the right time and place to inspire and prevail. This is perhaps why the study of leadership never fails to delight and surprise, defying as it often does, a scientific definition or clinical explanation. It is an enduring reminder that we are more than science alone can quantify. Regrettably, Ted would succumb to heart failure five weeks later and be laid to rest among the American dead of D-Day beside his brother Quentin, shot down in the First World War, in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Coolidge would not live to see the landings on this day in 1944 but he most certainly admired the Roosevelt spirit in both father TR and sons like Ted, a spirit that was again present and very much alive among those fighting their way inland from the beaches of Normandy three quarters of a century ago.

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A Review of L. John Van Til’s “Thinking Cal Coolidge: An Inquiry into the Roots of His Intellectual Life”

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It is unfortunate that there are so few intellectual histories (the history of the development of worldviews and thinking processes) on the Presidents. Study of any of them in this light would be rewarding, even for those regarded as the worst Chief Executives.

Calvin Coolidge is not among that ignominious group but stands as one of the most profound, consistent, and creative thinkers among America’s Presidents. Mr. Van Til explores where this came from and how it continued to develop over Coolidge’s lifetime. This quality as a thinker (well-known to his contemporaries) has become a severely under-examined, if not deliberately disregarded, aspect of contemporary study. In part, this is due to its rigor and difficulty. It is not easy to map, let alone navigate, a person’s intellectual roots and modes of thought. The history of ideas is complex and intimidating to even practiced hands. Mr. Van Til has not chosen an easy topic to tackle but it remains no less important. He begins by covering the biographical high points of Coolidge’s life.

It is certainly known and appreciated in many places that Cal was a thinker who thought internally, working out solutions and building his responses not on the page, as some Presidents do — seemingly in search of a thought or in defense of a legacy. Cal worked it all out in his mind and then launched it on the world. He was no less a quick thinker, whose rapid-fire wit and incisive observation skills were fundamental to his rise as a leader of the highest caliber. His press conferences, his daily meetings, his speeches, his participation in countless situations official and commonplace reveal a high intelligence, a set of skills not evident in the “front window” but packed in rooms all readily accessible to his organized and attentive mind.

Van Til next introduces us to the setting and the preeminent influences of Coolidge’s education: Amherst College, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, under Julius H. Seelye and Charles E. Garman. We all have a Seelye and Garman who inspired and shaped us in ways we may not even realize. Coolidge, ever the astute thinker, did comprehend these intellectual debts and honors his influences throughout life. It is a welcome feature of Van Til’s work that not only do we sojourn through the methods and perspectives of Seelye and Garman in their own words but we also enjoy an expedition through Coolidge’s speech collections published in Have Faith in Massachusetts (1919), The Price of Freedom (1924), and Foundations of the Republic (1926) as well as his Autobiography (1929) and some of his other post-presidential writing. Professor Van Til answers vital questions over what Coolidge should or should not have done as President, issues that continue to unfairly mar what Cal did accomplish and obscure a study of the era’s problem points with historical context. He, like Dr. Thomas Silver in Coolidge and the Historians, weighs in on the hostility of one-too-many “historians” who seemed more concerned with justifying their own political present than with an honest appraisal of historical perspective. Professor Van Til concludes with Coolidge’s speech in Philadelphia on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, given in 1926. It is provided in full as the best representative of Coolidge’s thinking encapsulated in any one speech. A summary of the books Van Til used and those relating to Coolidge (biographical and otherwise) up to 2015 completes this 182-page study.

Professor Van Til’s work has its small shortcomings (the formatting of the book being one of them, the one office Coolidge lost early in his career being another – which was school board, having just married Grace Goodhue, not because he violated any third term precedent) and other minor technicalities like Coolidge biographer Donald McCoy (who died in 1996) being quoted as writing in 1998. Confusing the newer edition of McCoy’s 1967 biography, The Quiet President, is a small error of attention to detail compared to Mr. Van Til’s overall achievement in Thinking Cal Coolidge. Taken together, the book is an excellent resource and merits a place alongside the growing Coolidge collection of materials setting the record straight after so many years of unwarranted mischaracterization by those who should know better. Contempt often clouds an honest study and Coolidge was subject to that enmity early. But, it is refreshing that scholarship is returning to both the 1920s and the life and legacy of President Coolidge.

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The Coolidges at William Wrigley’s home on Santa Catalina Island, California, spring 1930.