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[Music clip: Haydn's Derbyshire March No. 2, electronic piano version]
01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air! Greetings, listeners, from your frantically genial host John Derbyshire.
Why am I frantic? Well, because it's mid-day on Friday and I haven't yet produced any of this week's Radio Derb. Normally at this point I'm one-third or one-half of the way through, with much of the necessary gathering of data and composition of deathless prose already accomplished, ready to go on the air late Friday evening.
This week, however, I attended the centenary celebration in Vermont of Calvin Coolidge's ascent to the Presidency in the early morning hours of August 3rd, 1923. The story of that inauguration is, as I described at length in last week's podcast, one of the most dramatic and romantic in American political history.
Let me begin this week with some notes on that.
02 — Coolidge Centennial report. The centenary celebration of course took place where the event itself took place a hundred years ago: in the tiny hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vermont — Coolidge's native place. I went there with Mrs Derbyshire and a friend, arriving Wednesday afternoon. We attended the dinner and speeches in a big marquee tent on the grounds of the homestead Wednesday evening.
I am not very ashamed to say that we skipped the re-enactment of Coolidge's swearing-in by his father. Both the time and the place deterred us.
Time: 2:47 am Thursday morning. President Warren Harding had died in San Francisco at 7:30 pm Pacific time, 10:30 pm Vermont time. With no telephone connection to Plymouth Notch, it took a while for the news to get there.
Place: the parlor of the homestead, a room just big enough to contain the small number of people present.
What was that number, actually? Last week I quoted from the biography by Claude Fuess, which I have always supposed to be authoritative. I gave the number as eight. I had mis-transcribed from Fuess, however, leaving out Coolidge's stenographer, Erwin Giesser. Fuess actually makes the count nine. Sorry about that.
But then, as a Radio Derb listener pointed out to me at the event, Calvin Coolidge himself, in his autobiography, gives the number as six. Quote:
Besides my father and myself, there were present my wife, Senator Dale, who happened to be stopping a few miles away, my stenographer, and my chauffeur.
So I feel a bit better about my own error and leave it to historical researchers to come up with the correct, precise number.
Whatever it was, that number filled the parlor. So how was this week's re-enactment to be managed? There were a couple of hundred people seated with us in that dinner tent, and more milling aound outside. Obviously very few of us could be present in the parlor to watch the re-enactment.
When we enquired we were told that the parlor would contain people already booked to represent those present in 1923. Those of us who wanted to witness the re-enactment could gather outside the house and wait for the lighting of a lamp to signify the event … at 2:47 am.
Fearless and indefatigable reporter though I am, I couldn't face waiting up four hours past my usual bed-time, so we went back to our hotel.
That was, however, our only disappointment in the celebrations, and an entirely understandable one. The rest was some eloquent speeches, some hilarious community singing, public readings, honoring of Coolidge Scholars, an excellent new documentary movie about Coolidge, and sundry other events listed in the centennial schedule.
It was all great fun. We had a wonderful time. Our heartfelt thanks to the Trustees and staff of the Coolidge Foundation and to the sponsors whose donations made it all possible.
Those donations are, by the way, all that make these good works possible. I quoted earlier from Coolidge's autobiography, the original version of which came out in 1929. There is now a new, authorized and annotated edition that I recommend to your attention. It has an introduction by Amity Shlaes, who is a recent biographer of Coolidge and currently Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Coolidge Foundation. Quote from that introduction:
As he explicitly states in his autobiography, Coolidge believed former presidents should not live off the federal purse. As a result, there is no federally funded Coolidge Presidential Library. At the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, we seek to honor the president's intentions and currently operate without federal aid.
03 — Restoring amity. I should add a footnote to that. Having mentioned Amity Shlaes just then, I owe her three minor apologies.
First apology, which I was able to tender to her in person. I have been aware of her existence and her work for many years, but never met her until this week. On the rare occasions during those years that her name came up, I pronounced the initial "A" of "Amity" as a diphthong, the way we pronounce it in "amiable" or "atheist": "Ay-mity."
Wednesday evening I learned, hearing her being introduced at the dinner, that her name is actually pronounced with a short initial "A," as in "amble" or "amnesia": "A-mity." I apologise for having gotten that wrong all these years.
Second apology: When Amity Shlaes' biography of Coolidge first came out ten years ago I had things to say about it here at VDARE.com.
However, this being VDARE, I chid Amity Shlaes for having skipped lightly over the 1924 Immigration Act, which Coolidge signed. Another quote from me, edited quote:
Given the momentous demographic consequences of the Act … this must be regarded as unforgivably dismissive.
I softened that blow (I hope) by then recording that all other biographers of the Thirtieth President were equally reserved about the Immigration Act. Claude Fuess, whose 1939 biography of Coolidge I've been quoting a lot, doesn't mention it at all in his book, which is more than five hundred pages long.
And yes, I was inclined to cut Amity Shlaes as much slack as I could on account of the fact that she, like me, had once fallen afoul of America's chronic refusal to face reality on matters of race. That was back in 1994 when she published an opinion column titled "Black Mischief" in the London Spectator.
So two minor apologies there. I said three, though, and the third is still more recent and a bit less minor.
In last week's Radio Derb, reminiscing about my 2013 review of that Coolidge biography, I said of Ms Shlaes that, quote:
So far as I can judge from such slight engagement, she is compliant with the 21st-century progressive view of immigration: that it is an unqualified good, and that those who seek to restrict it are driven by prejudice, hate, spite, greed, and an excess of bile.
In fact I was too ready to judge, on much too little data. I did not know, and I still don't know, whether the lady actually does hold that progressive view of immigration. I am sorry I rushed to judgment.
I hope all that has wiped the slate clean in regard to Amity Shlaes. Whether it has or not, it's all the apologizing I can do when in a panic to get out my podcast late on a Friday afternoon.
And for the record, having now heared Amity Shlaes speak in public, and met her briefly face-to-face, I record with all sincerity that she is a smart, eloquent, charming and plain-spoken American lady who is doing great work at the Coolidge Foundation, especially with those college scholarships for young people. I wish I myself were half as useful to our nation. I look forward to Amity Shlaes' next book.
04 — The anti-ideologue. Why do so many of us revere Calvin Coolidge — who, after all, rarely breaks the halfway mark in presidential rankings? He ranks only 27th out of 44 in the latest ranking I can find. Jimmy Carter ranks five places higher, number 22. Jimmy Carter — good grief!
Well for one thing: if, like me, you hate ideology, Coolidge is your man. He had no truck with it. That's probably what H.L. Mencken meant when he remarked — approvingly, mind — in his obituary of Coolidge that Coolidge, quote, "had no ideas."
Here's a quote from that introduction I mentioned earlier, the introduction by Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart added to their new edition of Coolidge's autobiography. Quote:
In many respects Coolidge confounds stereotype. As governor, for example, the [inner quote] "arch-conservative" [end inner quote] Coolidge backed a number of progressive measures and counseled against legislating as an ideologue: [inner quote] "Don't hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don't hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table." [End inner quote.]
You could make an ideologue out of Coolidge about as successfully as you could make a concert pianist out of me. It just wasn't in him.
And then there's his humility. Coolidge knew that having been elected president he was the temporary head of one of our three branches of government, with well-defined tasks to perform. He performed them to the best of his ability.
One of the most-discussed conundrums of the Coolidge presidency is his decision not to run for re-election in 1928.
Just to remind you: he was Warren Harding's Vice President, then became President himself when Harding died in 1923. Coolidge was then elected in his own right in 1924 by a thumping majority in a three-way election race.
In early polls for the 1928 election he was overwhelmingly popular. Re-election would have been a walkover. In the summer of 1927, however, he famously announced, quote: "I do not choose to run for President in 1928." End quote.
Why not? Did he see the Great Depression on the horizon? Was he too drained in spirit by the death of his younger son in 1924? Speculation began when he made that announcement and has continued ever since.
Bear in mind that this was long before — twenty-four years before — the twenty-second Amendment that bars anyone from being elected President more than twice. Not only could Coolidge have run again; he could have run again, and again, and again. He was only in his mid-fifties — a spring chicken by today's wretched standards. Was he in much worse health than he appeared to be?
Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart, in that introduction to the Autobiography that I've been quoting, say this, edited quote:
The reason for Coolidge's decision not to run was indeed health — not the president's health but the health of our democracy. In fact, Coolidge's decision to walk away from … the presidency … came out of his own conviction … [that] the power of America lay not in great men, but in great institutions, institutions in turn built on their own bedrock, the rock of principle. …
I haven't engaged with Coolidge the man as closely as Shlaes and Denhart have, but I've read enough about him across enough years to agree with them on this.
I agree with them that humility, consistency, and a dislike of ideology are highly desirable attributes in a president; and I lament, as I think they do, that those qualities have been in dismally short supply recently.
05 — The conundrum within meritocracy. The United States of a hundred years ago of course differed in many ways from the country we live in today. We are today — it's a cliché to say it, but like most clichés it's true — we are much more divided than we've been since the Civil War.
Nineteen twenty-three America was also divided, but differently. There were plenty of radical progressives in that America, inspired by the Russian Revolution of a few years earlier. There were reactionaries, too, of many kinds: religious and social reactionaries, reactionary intellectuals — I've just mentioned H.L. Mencken — thirty thousand Klansmen marching in robes and hoods down Pennsylvania Avenue. Sure, there was division.
Our division today, though, seems more solid, more structural, more clearly binary: them and us. Why?
For a clue you might try reading David Brooks' long opinion piece in today's — that's Friday, August 4th — New York Times. Title: "What if We're the Bad Guys Here?"
I have mixed feelings about Brooks. He doesn't categorize easily, but a fair approximation would be: cookie-cutter Jewish left-liberal immigration advocate with very acute social-observation skills but not a very firm grasp of the underlying sciences.
In nature-nurture issues, for example, he is much more favorable to nurture than our current understanding can support. See my review of his 2011 book about human nature, Hard Wiring. It's archived at my website johnderbyshire.com under "Reviews … Human Sciences."
Those very acute social-observation skills are on display in this New York Times op-ed of today. What has divided us so deeply, Brooks argues, is meritocracy. Since the 1960s, writes Brooks, edited quote:
The ideal that we're all in this together was replaced with the reality that the educated class lives in a world up here and everybody else is forced into a world down there. Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.
There is of course much more than that that needs saying; but that needs saying.
And it has been said — by me, amongst other people. There is a deep knotty conundrum at the heart of meritocracy; and our ever-improving understanding of biology and the human sciences just makes it clear to us how very, very knotty that conundrum is.
The conundrum first came into clear view way back in 1958 when British social scientist Michael Young published his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, the book that first coined the word "meritocracy."
I wrote at some length about Michael Young's book in my VDARE.com monthly Diary for February 2018, the sixtieth anniversary of the book's publication.
Young's book is an imagined report written by a British sociologist of the year 2033. The report reviews the previous century of social developments in his country, which are summarized by his title, The Rise of the Meritocracy.
It describes the conundrum of meritocracy, which Michael Young foresaw sixty-five years ago and David Brooks is commenting on today. Brooks has observed in reality the process that Michael Young described in fiction. Sample quote from Brooks:
When I began my journalism career in Chicago in the 1980s, there were still some old crusty working-class guys around the newsroom. Now we're not only a college-dominated profession; we're an elite-college-dominated profession.
The same applies, says Brooks, to all the other professions. We've developed a smug, arrogant, inbreeding, self-satisfied elite class that loathes and despises the less-educated people, who loathe and despise the elites right back. Hence Donald Trump, champion of the non-elites.
It was all said by Michael Young sixty-five years ago. Young's fictional sociologist, writing up his report in the year 2033, gets lynched by a low-IQ mob.
Michael Young and David Brooks are birds of a feather. They want — in Young's case, wanted — social equality, and believe — in Young's case, believed — it can be attained by social engineering.
Here is David Brooks in an earlier article, also in the New York Times, January 24th, 2011. Quote:
The government has to work aggressively to reduce the human capital inequalities that open up in an innovation economy. That means early and constant interventions so everybody has a chance to participate.
"Early and constant interventions," right. Fix the schools! If the government just works on that — and we import lots of talented young people from the rest of the world — the meritocracy will be saved. Right.
From what the human sciences are telling us today, that's a wish-fulfilment fantasy. In intelligence, personality, and characteristic behavior, we're as equal as we're ever going to be. Some probable developments in the near future — embryo selection for the offspring of elites, for example — will make us less equal.
Facing reality and bringing back common-sense ideas about human nature might help. They might get us back on the rails towards real progress in human happiness and human flourishing; the rails we were on a hundred years ago when Calvin Coolidge was president. Hey, I can dream.
06 — Miscellany. And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.
Imprimis: Donald Trump, as you surely know, was indicted Tuesday on criminal charges for trying to stay in power after the 2020 election. The U.S. District Court judge assigned to his case in Washington, D.C. is a lady named Tanya Chutkan, a mulatto born in Kingston, Jamaica.
I've just been reading up on Judge Chutkan in The Hill. Hoo boy: talk about smug, arrogant, self-satisfied elite. This judge is a black race communist from Central Casting, appointed of course by Barack Obama; although The Hill notes that in spite of her being an obvious crazy-left progressive, she was confirmed unanimously by the Senate 95-0. Thanks, Republican senators!
She's been handing out brutal sentences to Trump supporters who demonstrated at the Capitol January 6th 2021. To the question why prosecutors hadn't brought more cases against people accused of looting and vandalism in the 2020 Floyd riots, which cost a billion dollars and several lives, Judge Chutkan extruded the following, quote:
People gathered all over the country last year to protest the violent murder by the police of an unarmed man. Some of those protesters became violent … But to compare the actions of people protesting, mostly peacefully, for civil rights, to those of a violent mob seeking to overthrow the lawfully elected government is a false equivalency and ignores a very real danger that the Jan. 6 riot posed to the foundation of our democracy.
In fact, if you line up the judges and prosecutors active in the vendetta against Trump — special counsel Jack Smith, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Georgia DA Fani Willis, et cetera, you have a pretty good cross-section of our smug, arrogant, self-satisfied elite, greatly augmented by the favoritism shown in recent decades to blacks and women — and double strength to black women.
They hate Trump, they hate us. Speaking for myself, I'm just going to hate the filthy critters right back.
Item: New York City's crisis with illegal aliens just gets worse. Now hundreds of them are sleeping in the streets. That may work in August, but what happens come November? Nobody knows. There's no plan, just ad hoc expedients.
We read this week that Eric Adams, the city's clueless mayor, may be planning to erect a tent city for the border-jumpers in Central Park. Central Park! — the city's gem.
Things may have been made worse by the City Council's decision this week to make sidewalk restaurant sheds — those covered seating areas outside restaurants that came up in the covid panic — permanent, except between November and March.
So how long will it take the wetbacks to figure out that after restaurant-closing time there'll be some nice sleepy space on city sidewalks nicely sheltered from inclement weather? And again, what happens in November?
As the stupidity and lawlessness mount, the silence of New York State's leading politicians becomes ever more deafening. Governor Hochul, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand: what have they had to say or propose about the issue? Nothing, zip, zilch, rien, nichts, nada, ничево. Not a word.
Great leadership there in the Empire State. For God's sake, who votes for these worthless seat-warmers?
Coolidge … balanced the budget every year of his presidency, an accomplishment managed by no president since. By the end of the Coolidge presidency, the federal debt was down by one-third, manageable. Another important achievement: Coolidge left office with a federal government smaller than when he arrived.
It can be done. Is there any prospect that it will be?
These reflections passed through my mind when I read that on Tuesday the credit-ratings company Fitch had downgraded U.S. debt from AAA to AA+.
Some similar reflections passed through the mind of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin too. Quote from him:
The downgrading of America's credit rating by Fitch represents a historic failure of leadership by both political parties and the Executive branch.
Yes it does. It also validates Calvin Coolidge's ideal that supervision of the nation's debt is a sacred trust to safeguard the people's wealth and financial security.
Senator Manchin took some of the shine off his comment by following up with, quote:
This is a stark warning that cannot be ignored. We must act now to fully fund the government and address our national debt before we wake up to a future where America's superpower status is in jeopardy and we have lost the confidence of our allies around the world.
What about those of us who don't want to live in a superpower with allies around the world — allies which, we all know, would shaft us first chance they got if there was some advantage to them in doing so?
What about those of us of us who'd rather live in an independent, proud, financially and militarily secure nation restricting our overseas relations so far as possible to commercial exchanges?
I guess we're just reactionary dreamers like, you know, the entire population of Switzerland … or Coolidge's America.
07 — Signoff. That's all for this week, ladies and gents. As I've explained, I spent much of the week up in Vermont, returning only on Friday morning, so I'm way behind in preparation. If we are to go on the air before minight on Friday, I can only offer a shorter than usual podcast, along with my apologies.
Returning to the matter of Calvin Coolidge — while promising that after this week I shall leave the Thirtieth President to rest in peace, with only an occasional short mention on Radio Derb — let me just say something about Coolidge impersonation.
It is apparently an iron rule of American politics — I think it's in the Constitution somewhere — that at any given moment there must be an adult male, probably in Vermont, who makes a living by impersonating Calvin Coolidge. When I wrote my 1996 novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream I used this fact as a plot device.
The full-time Coolidge impersonator back then was Jim Cooke of Quincy, Massachusetts. I got to know Jim and his wife, Patricia Busacker, quite well.
In fact the three of us got together and produced a CD of American poetry with Jim reading the male poets and Patricia the females. It wasn't much of a success, partly because of an embarrassing blooper in one of the readings; but we had fun doing it and a few copies of the CD survive if you're interested.
Jim's place as the nation's designated Coolidge impersonator has been taken by Tracy Messer of New Hampshire, who I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time this week. Tracy is a worthy successor to Jim Cooke, a fine impersonator with the audacity and quick wit that you need for this particular job.
Well, for signoff this week I'm going to give you a minute — to be precise, fifty-seven and a half seconds — of Jim Cooke.
No, this is not Jim doing Coolidge; this is a poem from that CD we made together. I offer it to Jim with my thanks and with sincere admiration for a fine actor and a great American; also as the only person I know who is the father of triplets.
There will be more from Radio Derb next week.
[Music clip: Jim Cooke, "Mezzo Cammin."]