Historian Emily Rosenberg
puts it best early in the Story Edit and preview of Things
of the Spirit, the biographical film we are completing on
Calvin Coolidge: "You know, Franklin Roosevelt was a tough
act to precede, and Coolidge and Hoover have always stood in the
shadow of that most charismatic politician." The Kunhardts'
treatment of Coolidge in the recent The American President
series on PBS edges toward penumbra. But viewers are left in the
dark as to the underlying character and political accomplishments
of our 30th president.
The Kunhardts tipped their
hand with the very first sentence of their 13 minute section on
Coolidge: "The chief business of the American people is business."
The sentence comes from an address President Coolidge gave to
the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which he explored
possible conflicts between the commercial and editorial roles
of American newspapers. The sentence served as a rhetorical springboard
to Coolidge's main point:
The chief ideal of the
American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that
America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to
which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction... I could
not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room,
but my ultimate faith I would place in the idealism of the editorial
room of the American newspaper.
In context, Coolidge might
be criticized for his idealism. But by quoting only his lesser
point, the Kunhardts once again paint Coolidge into the corner
created for him by the New Deal historians -- that of a small-minded
materialist. For emphasis, the Kunhardts add to their cliché
"business" quote an unrelated second sentence (on an
unrelated subject) lifted from Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address:
"If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction."
Describing Coolidge's early
years, the Kunhardt script states that:
Calvin Coolidge grew up
on the family farm in Vermont, working so hard he was left with
little time for himself. He was often lonely, yet feared being
However, in the Story Edit
and preview of Things of the Spirit, historian Michael
Platt tells us more about Coolidge, using a primary source:
In his Autobiography he
stresses the quietude of the lives lived in Plymouth, and indeed
of the lives that he saw and learned from. And he even talks
about the silences he enjoyed going out horseback riding. He
says, for example, "Riding over the fields and along the
country roads by myself, where nothing interrupts his seeing
and thinking, is a good occupation for a boy. The silences of
nature have a discipline all their own." He talks about
night -- middle of the night visits to his mother's grave. Now
in Plymouth his mother's grave is about a quarter mile from
his house. He went there often, especially when he was troubled.
And that kind of silence, that capacity to be with yourself
alone, to think long thoughts, is a strength that comes into
all that he said later on.
As to Coolidge's political
career in Massachusetts, the Kunhardt script states that Governor
Coolidge "forcibly ended" the 1919 Boston police strike.
In fact, he simply backed Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis's decision
first to suspend, and then to dismiss, striking policemen for
affiliating with the American Federation of Labor -- contrary
to Department regulations and Massachusetts law. In backing the
Commissioner and the rule of law, Coolidge thought he had committed
political suicide. The nation thought otherwise.
In describing the 1920 Republican
Convention, the Kunhardts state that Coolidge "lost to Warren
G. Harding" -- implying that Coolidge actively sought the
nomination. But, as Coolidge describes in his Autobiography:
I did not wish to use the
office of Governor in an attempt to prosecute a campaign for
nomination for some other office. I therefore made a public
statement announcing that I was unwilling to appear as a candidate
and would not enter my name in any contest at the primaries...
I had no national experience. What I have ever been able to
do has been the result of first learning how to do it. I am
not gifted with intuition. I need not only hard work but experience
to be ready to solve problems.
I was surprised how carelessly
the Kunhardts use archival material. They repeatedly show footage
of Coolidge as Governor, or in retirement, when purporting to
show him as President. Similar historical indiscretions take place
with Grace Coolidge as First Lady. Perhaps most absurd is their
use of a photograph of teenage Calvin, Jr., taken shortly before
he died, to depict the President in his youth.
More damaging is showing
photographs of the 1925 Ku Klux Klan march in Washington while
asserting Coolidge's "refusal to work on behalf of Black
Americans and their civil rights." Things of the Spirit
uses more dramatic motion picture footage of that event while
establishing just the opposite. Unlike President Wilson before,
and Franklin Roosevelt later, Coolidge repeatedly urged Congress
to enact federal anti-lynching laws. Congress never responded.
Coolidge's own response to the 1925 Klan march in Washington was
bold and courageous. It is described in "Toleration and Liberalism,"
an episode contained in both the Story Edit and preview of Things
of the Spirit.
Kunhardt commentator Richard
Neustadt then says of Coolidge:
A real farm depression
developed in his time. He did nothing about it.
In fact, a domestic farm
crisis spanned the entire interwar period, commanding the attention
of four American presidents. Coolidge labored over the farm problem.
At great political risk he twice vetoed the highly complex and
ill-conceived McNary-Haugen legislation. "Farm Subsidies,"
a major episode in Things of the Spirit, tells the story
of this politically defining issue and the solution Coolidge chose
In similar style, the Kunhardt
Though signs of mounting
danger in the stock market were evident by the late 1920's,
Coolidge did nothing to avert a looming financial crisis. Instead,
at the last moment, he announced his decision not to seek a
second full term.
A deeper look at the causes
of the crash and depression is offered in Things of the Spirit
by historians George Nash and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; economists
Christina Romer, Lawrence Reed and John Kenneth Galbraith; and
former Secretary of Treasury Douglas Dillon. As to Coolidge's
"last moment" decision not to run, his early announcement
in August 1927 is entertainingly described in the Story Edit and
preview of Things of the Spirit.
At the close of their Coolidge
segment, the Kunhardts tell us:
As the Coolidge Prosperity
went out the window, the preacher of the American way had little
left to say.
Far from it. Shortly after
leaving the White House in 1929, Coolidge's Autobiography
appeared serially in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later as
a book. In addition to occasional articles, Coolidge undertook
a short syndicated column, six days a week. It appeared in almost
100 newspapers across the country for a year. Although the former
president did not seek to intervene in national policy, his views
were well known to the American people during his remaining four
years following the White House. Coolidge died in January 1933,
at the age of 60.
Finally, in their transition
between Presidents Wilson and Bush, the Kunhardts maintain that:
was followed by two decades of isolation until Franklin Roosevelt
led the country back onto the world stage during World War II
-- turning America into the world's leading power.
Not so. As historians Warren
Cohen, Joan Hoff, Emily Rosenberg and Melvyn Leffler inform us
in Things of the Spirit, the 1920's was a decade of immense
diplomatic, economic and cultural expansion for America. Coolidge's
foreign policy with respect to Mexico, China and Nicaragua; his
handling of Allied war debt and German reparation issues; and
the diplomacy of arms limitation, peace and international trade
are examined in the episode "Spreading the American Dream."
As Warren Cohen puts it: "Nothing of any importance happened
in the 1920's without the involvement of the United States."
The treatment of Coolidge
in The American President confirms once again the need
to bring Things of the Spirit to American viewers. Since
completing the Story Edit in 1997, recent years have again been
devoted to fundraising. As tax deductible gifts and grants are
received, they currently are applied to acquiring, restoring and
remastering the archival film scenes needed to illustrate our
stories. We welcome leads to individuals and organizations interested