»  Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream — My Address at the JFK Library


On July 30th and 31st 1998 a conference titled Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence was held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. The principal organizer of the conference was Sheldon Stern, Historian at the Library.

The conference was addressed by a number of distinguished historians and also by: Michael S. Dukakis, former Governor of Massachusetts and Presidential candidate; eminent political commentators Robert Novak and Hugh Sidey; Jim Cooke, the world's leading Calvin Coolidge impersonator ("Mr Ruggles" in my novel); a son, a grand-daughter and a great-grandson of the President; and me.

All these addresses were printed up in a special edition of The New England Journal of History, Volume 55, Number 1 (Fall 1998). The below, which differs slightly from the printed version, is taken from my preparatory notes for the address.


A Novelist Takes on Calvin Coolidge


I feel like an impostor here. I am not a Coolidge; nor am I a learned historian, nor indeed an academic of any kind. I am a writer — a freelance journalist, mostly. Two years ago I published a novel. (Journalists want to write novels for the same psychological reasons slapstick comedians want to play Hamlet.) The novel was called Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, and was fortunate enough to get some good reviews. By way of doing research for the book, I made contact with what I think of privately as the Coolidge Underground — that small, quiet cabal of historians, writers, eccentrics and commonplace enthusiasts who keep the memory of the Thirtieth President alive, and many of whom I see here today. Following the book's publication, these kindly folk — there is nothing so warm-hearted as a group of people assembled for some purpose which has no chance whatever of making any money — took me into their bosom, and I am now a sort of honorary Coolidgean. This makes me feel doubly an impostor, for my novel — as you know if you have read it — is not about Calvin Coolidge at all. He is merely a deus ex machina, a plot device.

In spite of these disclaimers, which I presented to him at the time, Mr. Stern invited me to speak here today on the topic: "Why would Calvin Coolidge attract the attention of a novelist?" The business of novelists is to tell made-up stories, fishing around in their imaginations and their own personal experiences for the raw material from which to build those stories. Plainly I can have had no personal experience of President Coolidge. What, then, was it about this proverbially dry man that captured my imagination?

I cannot answer that without saying something about my novel. It deals with several things, one of which is the experience of being an immigrant here in these United States — about the experience, that is, of an adult person, fully equipped with an upbringing, an education, a language, and a stock of personal history all gathered in another place, settling in America and coming to terms with her. There are many ways to go about this. There is, for example, the minimalist approach: take in just as much of America as is necessary for survival, and for the rest, go on behaving as if you had never left home. In the novel I have sketched some individuals who took this path, in a way that, I suppose, makes it plain I do not approve of it, at any rate for educated people.

My hero, T.C. Chai, takes the opposite tack. He is an enthusiast for America, and makes conscious and determined efforts to Americanize himself. As part of this program, he pursues an interest in American history. While reading in a book about the 1920s, he is surprised to see that while the Coolidge presidency was a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity — of unprecedented progress not merely in material things, but also in culture — yet President Coolidge, in whose terms much of this went on, is given no credit for it.

Now, this is more puzzling to T.C. Chai than it would be to us. As an educated Chinese person, he is accustomed to think of the fortunes of the nation as being intimately linked to the virtue of the ruler. This is not a mere Confucian conceit: it reflects the reality of government in Imperial China, where, under a weak or corrupt ruler, the bureaucrats would turn from maintaining public works and the welfare of the people to enriching themselves, with dire consequences.

Perhaps some of the professional historians present will recognize the name of Karl Wittfogel, a graduate of the so-called Frankfurt school of Marxism, who developed the theory he called "hydraulic despotism". Very briefly, Wittfogel thought that pre-industrial societies like China's, located in regions of uncertain rainfall, depended for their survival on the upkeep of great water-containment projects — dams, dikes, and so on. This involved the conscripting and organizing of great masses of labor under a centralized authority which was perforce, or soon became, despotic. If these public works were neglected by lax rulers, floods would ensue, followed by famines and plagues. Hence the very intimate link between a virtuous ruler and the public welfare.

To Americans this is all very odd. In Imperial China the very lowest, pettiest district magistrate wielded the authority of the Emperor. Here, power is carefully separated among the various branches of the government, and diffused out to the states and localities. There is no obvious connection between the virtue of the Chief Executive and the life of the people. One can think of very virtuous presidents under whom the country went to pot, and — without trying very hard — of scoundrels under whom it prospered. But my hero is Chinese, and is already in early middle age when he arrives in this country, and it is on Calvin Coolidge that he becomes fixated — the virtuous ruler of a happy and stable country (and, incidentally — though I do not think Chai noticed this — a model of filial piety, the first of the Confucian virtues). When T.C. Chai then wanders off the straight and narrow path of married harmony, it is to President Coolidge that his wife turns as an authority figure she knows her husband will listen to. The wife is handicapped somewhat by President Coolidge having been dead more than sixty years; but being a very ingenious lady, she soon lights on a solution, and virtue and harmony are restored to the household.

Now, what can we say of T.C. Chai's perception of President Coolidge? Let me take, as my focus, the question of virtue. There are styles of virtue; there are even, I think, national styles of virtue. Calvin Coolidge brought into modern times (and he is not so far away: until recently I had a neighbor who clearly recalled listening to his radio addresses) a peculiarly American — perhaps I should say New England — style of virtue. He was honest, thrifty, industrious and uxorious. He had a rooted belief in human equality — there is a touching story in the Autobiography about that — and a great love of the class of small farmers and artisans from which he sprang, and of the independence they cherished so much. To us cynics of the post-modern sensibility, this is all deeply suspicious, of course; but for the purposes of my fiction, that does not matter. My hero is not post-modern; I am not sure he is even modern, and Coolidgean virtue is very appealing to him.

There have, of course, been other virtuous Presidents I could have chosen. The first one, George Washington, was justly famous for his virtue, which he practiced self-consciously, hoping to be a model for those who followed him. He was even quite aggressively virtuous, pressing his countrymen to cultivate virtue themselves, as the only way to ensure the continuation of their liberty. (I am thinking here of his first inaugural address: "The foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality …" etc.) Thomas Jefferson was a virtuous man, I believe; so was Lincoln; so, in his own way, was Teddy Roosevelt. (And I see here that, without any conscious intention, I have encompassed Mount Rushmore. The thing about clichés, as faux-Coolidge points out in my book, is that they are true.) But these are giants, great figures laboriously worked over by generations of historians. I was not looking for a giant. I needed someone who would pique my hero's curiosity — as, indeed, Calvin Coolidge had piqued mine.

There were other, less creditable, reasons for choosing Coolidge, too — though none of them, I hasten to add, major. There was once a very good writer of historical fiction named Alfred Duggan — he was a college friend of Evelyn Waugh's, and a fine eccentric in his own right, the subject of an intriguing pen-portrait by Peter Quennell — who deliberately set his stories in the most obscure periods of history to avoid having to deal with mountains of research material. I am afraid I cannot altogether discount some similar motivation in settling on Coolidge as my deus ex machina. There was just not so much reading to do, and people would not mind so much if I got things wrong. If I had picked on Lincoln, say, and if in error I had set the wart on the wrong side of his nose, I should have been laughed off the "Books" pages. There were also other, even more mundane considerations. For structural reasons, I needed a President with an appealing birthplace, within reasonable driving distance from Long Island. It helped also to have one with a distinctive voice, quirks of speech and accent being one of the surprisingly few tools novelists have at their disposal for making their characters memorable.

And so Coolidge was my man. Having adopted him for my purposes, I then had to fit him into my book — to make him my Coolidge. Human nature is infinitely complex, and we all know that the same person can present startlingly different aspects to different people, even when they all know him well. (How many times have you heard, or said: "What on earth does she see in him?") As a fiction writer, I never had any doubt of my right to apply my own coloring to the Coolidge I found: some shadowing here, a highlight there. There was his arithmemania, for example, which I spotted in several accounts of the man (including his own: his Autobiography says not a word about foreign policy, but contains precise vote counts for obscure contests in his early political career). A supporter sent him a barrel of apples: Coolidge was found in the White House basement, counting them. There was that odd, striking phrase in his address to the Massachusetts Senate: "Don't hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don't hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table." As the multiplication table. And so on. Well, I blew this up into most of a page of monologue. You can do that in fiction. That's the fun of it.

[Incidentally, when drafting this speech, I wrote down that last quote from memory. Reading over my text, I thought I had better look it up to get it exactly right, knowing I would be facing a room full of hyper-critical Coolidge experts. So I looked it up. The true version was shorter than mine by four words. It was, in fact, as short as it could possibly be!]

For all that, I was determined not to take wanton liberties with the man. John Coolidge, the President's son, was very patient and helpful to me in my researches, though I think some of my questions were baffling to him. He is pretty well accustomed to biographers, but had not much experience with novelists, and there was an air of puzzlement in his answers to such questions as: "Which pocket did your father keep his handkerchief in?" "What did he use to cut his cigars with?" But he was always patient and considerate, and did his best to help me. In return, I promised him that nothing I wrote would hold his father's memory up to ridicule. I believe I have kept that promise.

Certainly I hope so; for while Coolidge was sometimes very funny, he was never ridiculous. Throughout his career, from the lowest office he held to the highest, his attitude to his public duties was one of the uttermost gravity. Representing the people's will, and spending the people's hard-got money, were to Calvin Coolidge great trusts with a spiritual dimension to them, and the discharge of those trusts called upon a man to exercise whatever virtue he could find within himself, to the last drop, without relaxation or relief. "Virtue": though I think he would have hesitated to use the word — perhaps it is a word we should all use very sparingly — Coolidge carried within himself a precious idea, one of the germ seeds of this Republic and its laws: that for this nation to survive and prosper there must be a widespread acceptance of a common morality, and the leaders of the nation should strive to be exemplars of that morality. And now I see I have bumped up against old Confucius again.

Confucius, however, was an agnostic — or at the most, a vague Deist. And Confucianism became the state dogma of a brutish and lawless despotism. So, then, are the foundations of this republican virtue necessarily religious? De Tocqueville was inclined to think so, and wondered if American institutions would survive in an irreligious age. Mr Gamaliel Bradford, in his marvelous 1931 essay "The Genius of the Average", thought so too, at least in Coolidge's case.

This is, perhaps, the foremost question in American life. But here I must bail out. I am a novelist, not a philosopher of statecraft. My job is to tell stories, not to probe deep matters of this sort. Yet it is a measure of Coolidge's stature, so long underestimated, that you cannot pass through even such a fleeting acquaintance as I had with this man without finding these great issues presenting themselves continually to one's attention. Yes: this was a man, a President, worth serious consideration. I am glad that there are now scholars, curators, novel readers and thoughtful people of all sorts willing to extend that consideration to Calvin Coolidge.

Thank you, Mr. Stern, Ladies and Gentlemen.