On American Journalism

9b - Coolidge, cornerstone laying ceremony National Press Club 4-8-1926

The logo of the National Press Club features the owl, a symbol of wisdom and vigilance alongside the oil lamp, underscoring the burn of midnight oil to faithfully report truth.

The logo of the National Press Club features the owl, a symbol of wisdom and vigilance, sitting alongside the oil lamp, underscoring the burn of midnight oil to faithfully report truth.

It was on this day, April 8, in 1926 that President Coolidge would dedicate the cornerstone of the new National Press Club building, which was to span the entire distance of what had been known as “Newspaper Row” from the series of news offices and print shops that once identified 14th and F Streets NW in Washington. Completed in December 1927 and dedicated anew by the President in 1928, the fourteen-story structure became the largest private office building in the entire Washington area at that time. But it all started with this remarkable cornerstone dedication. A sizable copper box was prepared to mark the occasion and was to be placed into the cornerstone Coolidge would set on this day. The box remained in the Press Club President’s vault for several more months until financial backing was confirmed to begin construction. Filled with an impressive array of objects, this time capsule included:

Uncirculated 1, 5, and 10 cent silver pieces as well as newly minted $10 and $20 gold coins donated by Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon.

A copy of each Washington daily paper from April 8, 1926.

Photographs of old “Newspaper Row,” the Ebbitt Hotel demolished to make room for the Press Club site, President Harding (the only President to also be a former newspaper editor) casting his ballot at the annual Club elections, and other memories captured by photography.

A story from the National Intelligencer recounting the formation of the first Press Club in Washington, 1867.

Another story about “Newspaper Row” with an invitation to the cornerstone dedication.

Minutes from the first meeting of the National Press Club held on March 18, 1908, Club yearbooks from 1914 and 1924, and a full membership roster from 1926.

A specially-bound and embossed Congressional Directory from the first session of the 69th Congress, produced by George H. Carter, Public Printer.

A program from the First Pan-American Congress of Journalists held in Washington, and addressed by President Coolidge that same day.

And finally, a copy of the speech delivered by President Coolidge to dedicate the cornerstone.

President Coolidge reviews plans for the National Press Club Building, September 15, 1925.

President Coolidge reviews plans for the National Press Club Building, September 15, 1925.

Make no mistake, he had something very important to say. For Calvin Coolidge, the highlight of the observance was not that he was present but something far more fundamental. The stone being dedicated was not the only one honored that day. “The press” itself, Coolidge reminded his audience, “is one of the corner stones of liberty.” After all, a central principle of our country “guarantees a full and complete freedom in the publication and distribution of the truth. The right to have a fair and complete discussion of all problems is a necessary attribute of a free people. Without it the diffusion of such knowledge as is necessary to intelligent action in both private and public affairs would be impossible. Under American institutions a corner stone which is dedicated to the press is likewise dedicated to the Republic.”

Coolidge looked out beyond the platform where he stood to a press whose strength and influence rested in its independence. The press was not entirely free from accountability, however. On the contrary, the public press is charged with very high responsibilities. He would elaborate exactly what he meant, “It is my firm conviction that the press of this country,” being so robust, independent and influential, “should seek not to cater to a supposed low and degraded public opinion, but rather create a noble and inspired public opinion.” Instead of working against what is clean and wholesome, the purpose and might of public morality, it should be harmonizing efforts with it. Rather than championing ignorance and misinformation, the press is obligated to remind people that progress continues by revealing “the development of a Divine power” at work in contemporary history. This does not omit criticism toward current events, instead it directs it to constructive ends. As Coolidge pointed out, it “is to be remembered that criticism pursued merely for the sake of criticism is a barren operation, leaving no lasting results. True journalism must go far beyond this into the field of constructive effort. It is only in that direction that there will be found anything that is of lasting public benefit.”

President Coolidge would fill out, as on a canvas, the detailed responsibilities true journalists exercise in this country. First, “liberty is derived from law.” What established and continues to preserve the freedom of the press is not the mere courtesy accorded tradition nor the conditional privilege granted by those in power, it is guaranteed in our Constitution. “If that provision were struck out from our fundamental law, the press would not remain free for an hour. As an obligation, coupled with the very greatest self-interest, the press ought always to stand as a supporter of the Constitution and as the firmest advocate of a reign of law. On that principle there should be no weakness and no wavering. It should advocate resolutely, and at all times, the observance and the enforcement of the law.”

Second, “This is all one country.” There is a proper place for pride for one’s local region. It is even justifiable and helpful but it cannot take precedence to the fact that we are one, united people. “No part of our Nation is so perfect that it can look with any disdain on the imperfections of any other part, and, conversely, all of our different areas each have sufficient advantages to commend them to respect. It is enough to know that all can say, ‘This is a part of America,’ and ‘We are Americans.’ Under our institutions all are equal.”

Third, “Americans are all privileged.” For the same reasons that logic does not sustain pitting one section of the country against another, it is equally “untenable” attempting “to array class against class. Correctly speaking, we have no sections and we have no classes. The same unity that applies to our territory applies with even more force to our population.” The press shirks one of its greatest responsibilities when it abandons this fact to see people strictly through the lens of those artificial and non-essential differences in humanity. Coolidge sides with the progressive thought of the Founders, not the reactionary prejudices of those who place Americans in the midst of some perpetual struggle between fixed classes. “When we wisely decided not to create those artificial barriers which are represented by orders of nobility, but to let true worth create for all our inhabitants a universal class, we recognized one of the great truths of human existence which can not be too often emphasized.”

Page_064_Photo_sm CC dedicating cornerstone Natl Press Club

The press, just like the rest of us, is to meet these challenges in human relations not by defaulting to the easy path with least resistance but by exercising the “principle of toleration.” This does not mean a double standard along partisan lines, condoning “[r]ace hatred, class feeling, religious persecution, however these may be exhibited, whether under a form of law or through the force of public opinion, or even in defiance of law.” As Coolidge would remark on another occasion, tolerance is not an assent toward evil. Tolerance “means the adoption of a broad and generous spirit under which each may work out his own destiny in accordance with his own merits.” It is the acts of intolerance – racial hatred, class prejudice, and religious persecution – that “dwarf and destroy those who permit themselves to come under the domination of these motives. Toleration is not a passive quality. It does not mean simply receiving the benefits of the tolerance of others. It is distinctly an active quality which means bestowing upon others and thereby receiving ourselves the benefits of our own tolerance.”

Where does the press fit in all of this? Coolidge answers, “No one can criticize journalistic efforts directed to the promotion of particular interests, but all that can be done without raising bitter antagonisms against other interests…Rank partisanship very quickly falls into a distortion or a complete misstatement of the facts, accompanied by arguments which lead to illogical and unsound conclusions.” Even a cursory look at history would remind us that “there has been sufficient good in both our political parties, especially when they have been in power, to require a large amount of printer’s ink in its portrayal.” While the situation in Coolidge’s time was hardly free of gross incivility and brutal partisanship, it was easier for some to “find fault with what was being done” than to “suggest what ought to be done.” Just as, in our day, it is easier to run against those in power (even if you are the ones in power) than it is to hold fast to principled solutions, taking a position that serves all Americans, not merely one party or petitioner. “It is very difficult to reconcile a narrow and bitter partisanship with real patriotism.”

President Coolidge then ventured into the great responsibilities the American press continues to carry in the field of foreign relations. Coolidge knew that most of our information of the world comes not through direct experience but in reliance upon honest reporting by the America’s journalists. To complain that the press in this country represented America “as having the best of institutions” is absurd and needless. Our institutions are what is best for us while what other countries decide to adopt is up to them. We need neither apologize for or jettison a defense of what America is and what America has done in our news coverage around the world. Racial hatreds, class resentment and religious bigotry are not only incompatible with domestic journalism, they are also inconsistent with how we treat the rest of the world. We have to appeal to higher principles than base human nature, a prejudice that had manifested itself throughout the First World War against anything German. “International friendship and good will…can not be promoted by misrepresentation and caricature of foreign people. The cultivation also of such an attitude of mind on the part of our people is an exhibition of hostility. It is sowing the seeds of war…No basis for harmony, tranquility, honorable dealing, and peace has ever been better expressed than that which is contained in the golden rule.”

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Of course, Coolidge knew, there were limits to even the best of good intentions. They had to be reinforced and enacted by “proper instruments and institutions.” This is why participating in the World Court while abstaining from the League of Nations was an important and reconcilable distinction. “It is useless to love liberty unless we establish laws. It is futile to cherish justice unless we provide courts.” By insisting on reservations that safeguarded America’s sovereign rights, the universal sanctity of what is just and fair, apart from any nation’s political affairs, was advanced without embroiling the country in a countless array of foreign commitments and vague obligations. By refusing to become involved in the politics of other nations — “because they are none of our affair” — America set the scope of its participation, lending “a great influence in establishing the principle of a reign of international law” based in reason not mere military expenditures. Coolidge also knew that before a limitation of weaponry could proceed, there must first be “an intellectual and moral disarmament.” The West, thanks to President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Thatcher, accomplished this through his direct conversations with Gorbachev, insisting on ending the MAD stalemate and encouraging the expansion of glasnost. This is where the press comes in. “To create a better understanding in this direction we are almost entirely dependent on our editors and publishers. The good they can do in promoting better understanding by supporting faith and good will and peace can not be estimated.”

Coolidge could summarize without hyperbole, that “[n]o other journalists ever had a like opportunity” to perform so large a service for humanity as the American press. “In financial resources, in absolute independence, in the reaction of an enlightened public opinion to right and truth and justice, the position which they occupy in this country stands unrivaled in all history.” However, American journalism could not overlook the most important side of all in what they do, Coolidge concluded. “No enterprise can obtain a success which is worth anything unless it appeals to the spiritual nature of mankind. No matter how secular the efforts may be of a publication, it will fail of the largest attainments, will not meet the highest requirements, will not secure the widest influence unless it is moved by a reverence for religion. Our country is a reverent country and our people are a reverent people. Our institutions must rest on that foundation. The press must minister to that spirit. Their great work must go on like all other great works, in reliance upon a divine purpose. If the corner stone which we are laying to-day is to endure, it must represent these principles. ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ “


On Peace and Presidential Greatness

robertmerry   Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents Cover   recarving_rushmore_180x270

                              Felzenberg book   Gerhardt book

A series of books over the last several years have taken a second look at the standards by which we measure our Presidents. The decisive bias toward Chief Executives who expanded the powers of the Office, reaching into the authority left to the Congress, the courts, the states or the people during times of war abroad or civil conflict at home has featured so largely in biographical and historical literature that no countenance is given to those who led in peacetime and prosperity. Some, like Robert Merry in Where They Stand have made an excellent points assessing our leaders based on a faith in the judgment of the electorate. Others, like Stephen Hayward in The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents have reiterated the need to weigh “greatness” from the Oath they take. Still others, like Ivan Eland in Recarving Rushmore, focus on the economic health of the country as the primary gauge for Presidential quality. Alvin Felzenberg in The Leaders We Deserved (And a Few We Didn’t), appeals to a broader treatment of the character traits (or lack thereof) in each man raised from the people to lead for a time. Michael Gerhardt in The Forgotten Presidents ventures into a welcome examination of the constitutional impact and presidential lessons left by twelve of our most overlooked national leaders, from Tyler to Taft and Cleveland to Coolidge, Gerhardt relates some much-needed analysis beyond those lauded superficially as the “strong” Presidents. Each author makes important points in the ongoing conversation on what makes for Presidential greatness. These authors are challenging the preconceived notion that nothing can be learned from those who led in peaceful times. The “good times” no more indicate Presidential inactivity or weakness than do the policies of Hoover equate a “hands-off, laissez-faire” approach to government. Rather than overemphasize the merits of those who led during wartime, could it not be equally as insightful to study those who kept the nation at peace? Is it possible that the very lack of war is due to the abilities exercised by that leader at that time?

Warfare is such a prevalent condition of human nature that when peaceful conditions prevail, especially as long as they did during the eight years of the Harding and Coolidge administrations, it demands that we sit up and take notice. It cannot be merely chalked up to a global exhaustion after the Great War, though people were certainly tired of the destruction and loss. Leadership played an essential part in the restoration of peaceful terms to America, especially. It should, at the very least, warrant an inquiry into the reasons and causes of such a return of calm. The only lessons do not come from those who fail to prevent war but belong equally to those who preserve peace. It certainly takes no less wisdom or skill to navigate an entire nation clear of the rocks and shoals not merely one or two years but eight, six of which belonged to the unflappable, confident approach of Calvin Coolidge.

Any one of a series of complex issues could have ignited another powder keg of hostilities, yet they did not. Simply because they found resolution hardly means that armed conflict was not genuinely close at hand. Readily in the memories of most alive at that time, it did not take much for an entire world war to pit nation against nation again into open fighting, as had happened in 1914 after years of suspicious and inordinate preparation for peace to end, rather than investing in its continuance. During the 1920s, as America stepped into world leadership, peace could have died nearly anywhere: over war indebtedness and disarmament in Europe, over property and commercial rights in Latin America, over the inherited troubles in the Philippines or the defiant disregard for law and national obligations by those given to violent overthrow in Soviet Russia, China or Africa.

Michael Gambon as Lord Fox

The observation on peacetime leadership by Lord Charles Fox, portrayed in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, is particularly apt here, “When people speak of great men, they think of men like Napoleon – men of violence. Rarely do they think of peaceful men. But contrast the reception they will receive when they return home from their battles. Napoleon will arrive in pomp and in power, a man who’s achieved the very summit of earthly ambition. And yet his dreams will be haunted by the oppressions of war. William Wilberforce, however, will return to his family, lay his head on his pillow and remember: the slave trade is no more.”

Once reflecting on the troubles weighing on the President’s mind, Coolidge noted, “In Washington I went to sleep pretty quickly, but if I had a hard problem on my mind, I would wake up in the middle of the night, and the tougher the problem, the earlier I waked up. Sometimes it was hard to go to sleep again. Of course, everything a President does is subjected to criticism. But I used to remind myself that the criticism probably wouldn’t bulk very large in the pages of history, and then I would reflect that the country seemed to be in pretty sound condition. So I would roll over and go to sleep.” This confident expression cannot be severed from the often serious and heavy burdens of leadership he carried with him. As he also said, “While it is wise for the President to get all the competent advice possible, final judgments are necessarily his own. No one can share with him the responsibility for them. No one can make his decisions for him. He stands at the center of things where no one else can stand.” Study reveals that peace is not an accidental outcome, that it exacts much from even prepared and experienced leaders. Leaders, by what Coolidge would credit Providence, “appear to come forward to perform a certain duty. When it is performed their work is done.” The work begun by Harding and carried to completion by Coolidge was how to “put the country in a position to liquidate the liabilities which had resulted from the war” bringing conditions from a “wartime basis” to that of peacetime.

"Not so bad when you get 'em all strung together, eh?" Cartoon in the Des Moines Register by "Ding" Darling, June 10, 1924.

“Not so bad when you get ’em all strung together, eh?” Cartoon in the Des Moines Register by “Ding” Darling, June 10, 1924.

President Wilson, for all his dreams, had failed to craft terms of peace between the nations involved in the war. He had left America in deeper indebtedness than ever before, had fostered social and economic divisions, and had neglected his obligations here to restore calm after the storm. Blaming America for rejecting the League of Nations, Wilson retreated to obscurity leaving the unsettled problems of world war to others. It would be left for Coolidge and those he would carefully select to reclaim the environment in which Americans could flourish again, working more for themselves than for the national government, bringing calm and regularity after the social upheaval and legal arbitrariness of the war years, and finally, ushering in circumstances that would replace the reliance on great personalities in Washington. Correcting this imbalance would have to start not with material resources but by tapping into the spiritual strength which America possessed. It meant reclaiming the moral power that inspired the Declaration, gave life to the Constitution and repeatedly triumphed over every attempt to replace peace and prosperity with warfare and want.

This success, though, has not come automatically, nor through the initiative and mere force of Presidential charisma. Contrary to conventional thinking, it is to the humble and honest leader who conscientiously meets the day’s duty, goes to sleep at night having ably accomplished what was given him to do, who has done more for the peace and well-being of the country than a dozen well-intentioned Wilsons or braggadocious Roosevelts. Coolidge was one such Presidential success not because he personally furnished the “roar” of the twenties but because he respected the ideals that made it possible, continually encouraging a quiet assurance and competent faith in God and ourselves, the people in each generation who make the country work.

"There is another element, more important than all, without which there can not be the slightest hope of a permanent peace. That element lies in the heart of humanity. Unless the desire for peace be cherished there, unless this fundamental and only natural source of brotherly love be cultivated to its highest degree, all artificial efforts will be in vain. Peace will come when there is realization that only under a reign of law, based on righteousness and supported by the religious conviction of the brotherhood of man, can there be any hope of a complete and satisfying life. Parchment will fail, the sword will fail, it is only the spiritual nature of man that can be triumphant" -- Calvin Coolidge, March 4, 1925.

“There is another element, more important than all, without which there can not be the slightest hope of a permanent peace. That element lies in the heart of humanity. Unless the desire for peace be cherished there, unless this fundamental and only natural source of brotherly love be cultivated to its highest degree, all artificial efforts will be in vain. Peace will come when there is realization that only under a reign of law, based on righteousness and supported by the religious conviction of the brotherhood of man, can there be any hope of a complete and satisfying life. Parchment will fail, the sword will fail, it is only the spiritual nature of man that can be triumphant” — Calvin Coolidge, March 4, 1925.

“Calvin Coolidge” by Jerry Wallace

Here is an awesome half-hour presentation of the life and landmark accomplishments of Calvin Coolidge by superb scholar Jerry Wallace to the Wichita Pachyderm Club. His irreplaceable volume Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President has contributed so much toward shattering the myth that Cal was too inept and silent to make use of the new medium of radio. In fact, Mr. Wallace explains that far from being a failure, Calvin Coolidge bequeaths an historic legacy as not only a masterful communicator but effectual doer and successful President. This is well worth the listen!