There's something magical about being able to touch the past. If it weren't special, we'd have no need for museums or places of storage where we squirrel away things we deem precious.
I thought of that a few months ago when my cousin sent me a somewhat sullen photo of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge. It was inscribed to my uncle and signed, "Best Regards." Both my uncle and his father had been deans at Amherst College, which Coolidge attended. Coolidge's dour expression aside, to hold something that was, in turn, held and signed by a president and owned with pride by a relative is still pretty cool.
Shortly after receiving the photo, the U.S. Mint issued the latest in its ongoing series of Presidential Golden Dollar coins. Coincidentally, it commemorated Coolidge. Putting the two together made me wish to learn more about his presidency. As they say, be careful what you wish for.
It turns out Coolidge wasn't our most accomplished chief executive. In fact, he was most renowned for the amount of time he slept. Between night and naps, it could be upward of 14 hours a day. And even with his impressive college education, he didn't appear motivated to do much.
As it were, he hadn't planned to be president. He was vice president under Warren Harding. When Harding died, Coolidge was ushered into office. Even that was unceremonious. Coolidge was asleep at his father's home in Vermont when word came by courier that Harding had died. So at 2:47 a.m., on Aug. 2, 1923, Harding took off his pajamas, changed into a black suit, was sworn in by his father (who happened to be a public notary ), got back into his pajamas, and went back to sleep.
It's a safe bet his father had Calvin repeat after him with the swearing in, because the statesman was notorious for offering few words of his own. In fact, his lack of speaking was so renowned that one evening at a party, a woman approached him and proudly announced that she had bet someone that she would be able to get Coolidge to say more than two words. The president wryly responded, "You lose," and walked away.
Coolidge truly was most adept at doing precious little during his time in office. He was able to veto legislation, which apparently served to create a wider chasm between the haves and have-nots. Some contend it was his nonproactive presidency that ushered in the great depression. To that point, one of his more curious sound bites was, "When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results." Uh ... OK.
In fairness, as much of a father figure and stoic as he was, it was under him the nation enjoyed the Roaring '20s with "flapper" women drinking, smoking, dancing and voting. Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, and jazz music filled the streets. But that was the tenor of the people, not the president.
"Silent Cal," as he was known in Washington, passed the presidential torch to Herbert Hoover in 1929 just as the stock market was in its death spiral. It subsequently crashed. He himself passed on to relative obscurity just a few years later in 1933.
Coolidge's legacy might best be compared to a scene in the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,' in which the editor of the Shinbone Star newspaper learns that the man who was once celebrated and made a hero for having shot a robber/murderer was later revealed not to be the one who did it. After that, the editor opined, "When the legend becomes fact ... print the legend." Or in this case, issue a coin. After all, he was president. Then as now, being president is no cakewalk or a position most would care to ascend to.
The new Coolidge Golden Dollar coin featuring an image of the 30th president — not smiling or saying a word — will not be released for general circulation but can be obtained directly from the U.S. Mint. Available in sets, rolls or bags. For more information or to order log onto: www.USMint.gov or phone toll-free: 1-800-USA-MINT (872-6468).
Editor's Note: A JPEG visual of the new Calvin Coolidge Presidential Golden Dollar coin has been sent with this column.
To find out more about Peter Rexford and features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.