Thursday, January 3, 2013

Silent Cal

Watching the outrage over the GOP failure to vote on Sandy relief aid reminds me of Calvin Coolidge.

Why? Because Silent Cal faced a disaster comparable in scope and destructiveness, the 1927 Mississippi River flood. He was the last president do what the right wing of the Republican party wants today: he resisted calls for federal disaster relief, a stand that was controversial even at the time. It was the last time that the national government failed to rescue the states from a natural catastrophe.

I just read a sympathetic biography of Coolidge. He was actually very progressive early in his career. Far from uncaring or cold, he was deeply devoted to family and friends. The deaths of younger sister and especially his oldest son devastated him.

But he was also a man out of step with his own times. In a decade during which car ownership exploded, he never learned to drive. He refused to use a phone, considering it undignified for a president.

A good, hard-working, decent man, but a template for 21st century leadership? Doubtful.


  1. Hi Chris:
    Randy Newman describes this in his well-known song about the flood, "Louisiana 1927," which includes the verse:

    "President Coolidge come down in a railroad train
    With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand.
    President say, 'Little Fat Man, isn't it a shame
    What the river has done to this poor cracker's land.'"

    When people like Aaron Neville and Willie Nelson sing that song today, they replace "cracker" with "farmer," which sounds less jarring to modern ears, but completely reverses the meaning: The original is an amazingly economical character sketch of Coolidge as a completely aloof, out of touch, uncaring President who can only look on and shake his head at what people who are beneath him have to endure. Changing out the word makes the remark sound empathetic which, as you point out, Coolidge wasn't.

    It's great to see you striking out on your own. Best of luck with the site! Keep digging up these cool interesting nuggets....

    --Eric Krapf

  2. Great stuff, Eric. You hit the nail on the head.