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.
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:
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.
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." Case closed.
Coolidge's early years, the Kunhardt script states that:
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 alone.
in the Story Edit and preview of Things of the Spirit,
historian Michael Platt tells us more about Coolidge, using a
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.
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
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.
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.
commentator Richard Neustadt then says of Coolidge:
farm depression developed in his time. He did nothing about
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 to pursue.
style, the Kunhardt script declares:
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.
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:
Coolidge Prosperity went out the window, the preacher of the
American way had little left to say.
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.
in their transition between Presidents Wilson and Bush, the Kunhardts
administration 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
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."
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 in contributing.