Monday, October 16, 2006

Boring Postcards

[posted by Callimachus]

Coolidge was one of the most "misunderestimated" presidents. His image is fixed for us, perhaps by H.L. Mencken's mocking quip that Coolidge was "the greatest man ever to come out of Plymouth, Vermont." His voice was "about as musical as the sound made by a buzz saw," and the man himself was once summed up as "repressed sentimentality chained in a prison of a smooth, flinty New England exterior."

But a couple of stories I've read about him incline me to like him better, differences of politics aside. One hinges on his legendary taciturnity. A lady guest seated beside him at a dinner party said, "Oh, Mr. President, I bet a friend I could get more than two words out of you."

Coolidge replied, "You lose."

I don't know if that one is true or not (and I quote it from memory, so all caveats apply). But it is true that Coolidge is on the list of presidents whose terms were marred by the tragedy of a child's death. The list is remarkably long to us who live now and forget how remarkably common such losses were not so long ago, to paupers and presidents alike.

Lincoln is on the list, of course, as is Coolidge's fellow New Englander Franklin Pierce, who with his wife endured a horrific railway crash two months before his inauguration. Their train-car derailed and rolled down an embankment and the Pierce's sole surviving child, a son named Bennie, was practically decapitated in front of their eyes. Mrs. Pierce never recovered her full sanity and thought the loss was somehow the price God exacted in exchange for the White House.

Coolidge lost a young son to a blood infection that started as a blister. Even in 1924, medicine couldn't save him. The president seemed to take the loss in the same despairing spirit the Pierces had:

Coolidge said, "In his suffering, he asked me to make him well. I could not. When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him... The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work he could have done. I do not know why such a high price was exacted for occupying the White House. If I hadn't had the office, he may never have died." ... Subsequent to the Coolidges' personal tragedy, Coolidge made it clear that any young boy out at the White House fence who wanted to see him was to be ushered in.

A friend of Coolidge's also lost a young son, to polio. In a book dedication, Coolidge wrote to his friend, "To Edward Hall, in recollection of his son and my son, who have the privilege, by the grace of God, to be boys through all eternity."

This, on the other hand, strikes me as so full of phallic symbolism as to be borderline obscene -- from the spiking skyscraper to the memorial granite erection to the minuteman's musket to the very wheelwell paint scheme of the Gray Line tour bus.