Calvin Coolidge was known more for what he didn’t say than what he did say. Nicknamed “Silent Cal,” he was known for not talking. He was also known for sleeping. It is said that Calvin Coolidge got more sleep in the White House than any other president. He slept late, took a two-hour nap each day, and often retired early.
But what made him famous was his laconic nature. Stories of his silent ways were always popular. He was also known for being very frugal at a time when Americans were spending heavily and going into debts in the stock market.
Coolidge, who worked his way up from mayor of his town, to the Massachusetts legislature, to Lt.-Governor and Governor, first came to national attention in 1919. That year, the Boston police went on strike, which was illegal. This caused a wave of looting and other crime in Boston. People turned to Governor Coolidge for help, but he maintained that it was a city, and not a state, matter. Finally, party leaders convinced him to send in the National Guard. When asked for his justification for such an act, Coolidge merely said “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” A short- winded politician who took decisive action caught the imagination of people all over the country, reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Coolidge was re-elected governor of Massachusetts by a landslide.
The next year, the Republican convention deadlocked and compromised by choosing Warren Harding for president. The convention then chose Calvin Coolidge for vice-president.
While Coolidge was vice-president, the man who replaced him as governor visited him. He complained to Coolidge that people came into his office and talked for hours. He remembered that Coolidge had never had that problem, accomplishing many appointments each day by keeping them short. The man asked Coolidge how he had managed it. Coolidge replied, “Your problem is that you talk back.”
After Harding’s death, President Coolidge continued his silent treatment. Visitors would come in make their point, and wait for an answer or question. Coolidge would just stare at them, and they would leave. Greta Garbo, a leading actress of the day was known for not talking to reporters or fans. (“I vant to be alone.”) One political cartoon showed Garbo and Coolidge sitting next to each other, both tight-lipped and silent. The cartoon was titled “The Impossible Interview.”
One story goes that a lady at a party came up to Coolidge and said that she had just bet a friend that she could get Coolidge to say more than two words. Coolidge simply replied, “You lose.” When Coolidge stunned the nation by announcing he would not run for re-election, he said nothing. At a press conference, he merely handed out slips of paper with the words “I do not choose to run for president in 1928” printed on them. He left the room without saying a word.
Coolidge once attended a picture session with visiting Indian chiefs without saying a word to anyone. He came out of the White House, put on an Indian headdress, had his picture taken, and walked back into the White House. No one considered this rude; it was just the way Coolidge was. When Coolidge died, a nationally known reporter quipped, “How can they tell?”
But Coolidge was also a lot of fun. His wife was just the opposite, outgoing, charming and vivacious. Everyone wondered how he had won such a beautiful, fun-loving woman. She once explained that he had a great sense of humor, but no one believed her.
Coolidge was actually a practical joker. He would often hide behind some curtains after pushing every call button on his desk, and watch secretaries, maids, ushers and security men go rushing around the White House. He and his wife spoke in sign language when they didn’t want anyone to know what they were saying. They would be sitting quietly in the White House and Grace Coolidge would suddenly break out in laughter. Those around them were surprised, to say the least.
Coolidge did not do much during his term as president. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “That is exactly what we wanted him to do.” During the Roaring 20’s, he was known as a frugal, silent man of action. A far cry from the politicians of today.
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