David Greenberg: Calvin Coolidge: Right-Wing Rock Star?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of "Nixon’s Shadow" and "Calvin Coolidge." In 2010-11, he is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.]

...To most people today, Coolidge is little more than a cartoon. If he’s remembered at all, he’s the grim-faced "Silent Cal," the man said by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice to have looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle. His taciturn style provoked no end of jokes and anecdotes. One hostess, aware of the president’s laconic reputation, was said to beseech him at an event, "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." Not missing a beat, Coolidge replied, "You lose."

There’s no evidence in "America by Heart" to suggest that Palin has dug much beyond this familiar lore about Coolidge. It’s hard to believe that she’s well-versed in the achievements of his presidency, whether the Dawes Plan to aid a debt-ridden Europe or the unprecedented mobilization of federal resources to deliver relief to victims of the 1927 Mississippi flood. She may not know the finer points of his economic policies. Coolidge seems to appeal to her, rather, because of his talent for evoking the values of a small-town America that was disappearing even during his presidency. Three times she cites his speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence ("I highly recommend it," she burbles) in which he swears by the timelessness of the ideals of equality and popular sovereignty that it uncontroversially avows.

Yet Palin’s name-checking of our 30th president is less corny than it seems. For decades, since the arrival in power with Ronald Reagan of so-called movement conservatives, Coolidge has been a patron saint to the right — a symbol of patriotism and piety, of hard work and thrift, and not least of low taxes and minimal government. When Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, he removed the portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman in the Cabinet Room and put up those of Dwight Eisenhower and Coolidge instead....

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