Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Calvin Coolidge and civility

(This article originally appeared on Virginia Politics on Demand on June 20, 2013.)

One day in 1905, while running for the school committee in Northampton, Massachusetts, future U.S. President Calvin Coolidge ran into his opponent on the street. Biographer Amity Shlaes relates the story like this:

The school committee campaign, she said,

would be a tight race: his Democratic opponent, John J. Kennedy, was someone he liked. "Calvin, I think I've got you beaten," teased Kennedy when they met. "Either way, they'll get a good man," Coolidge shot back. There was no point, he was learning, in making enemies.....

Within weeks, he did lose to Kennedy, albeit by less than a hundred votes. That was all right. A neighbor told him he had voted for Kennedy for the school post because Kennedy, at least, had children. Coolidge [then a newlywed] came back with good humor: "Might give me time."
That turned out to be the only election Calvin Coolidge lost as he made his way through the state legislature, lieutenant governor, governor, vice president, and president.

The anecdote about Coolidge and Kennedy struck me as so out of sorts with our own political times that I asked Shlaes about it when I interviewed her at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March. What did that story say about civility in politics?

"That's the most important thing," she replied, "and I hope you write about that."

Coolidge, she explained, "was so civil."
Right now, with this book, a lot of people are trying to get me to attack other people. I don't want to attack people. We all should respect each other. One would hope all of us would hope to be like Coolidge and be fair to one another. He won without attacking and that's interesting. Coolidge won more than a dozen times but he was running for election every single year. In Massachusetts at that time, you had to run for governor [and virtually every elective office] every year.

... they had to run for office so often, that would be another way of testing their probity, wouldn't it? They got inspected by the customer -- the voter -- more often than we do [every] four years or something, right?

[Coolidge] just said, be civil, it'll pay off. It's in his autobiography, as well... He had a wicked tongue but it didn't behoove him to use it. He had a lot of kindness in his heart for all his opponents.

Calvin Coolidge civility Amity ShlaesOne could write off Coolidge's kindnesses for his opponents as mere political posing. Yet the encounter with John Kennedy was a private one; Coolidge had no points to score. He was genuinely amiable and civil with his rival, and he genuinely believed Kennedy could do just as a good a job on the school board as Coolidge could himself.

There are many adjectives used to describe Calvin Coolidge -- parsimonious, reticent, reflective -- but "obsequious" is not among them.

Twenty-first century Americans have a lot to learn from Coolidge and his era, which was just as rambunctious politically as our own, with real lines drawn on policies of public importance.

During the 1920s, there was a robust debate about the proper size and scope of government and another on the role of the United States in international affairs in the wake of the Great War. Policy differences were stark.

Yet Republicans and Democrats (and even Progressives) were able to discuss the issues of the day without devolving into the sort of tribalism we find ourselves in today. They may have had profound disagreements but nevertheless were able to conduct public business without demonizing each other.

As I said in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a few years ago, we could use a dose of Coolidge today.

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