Calvin stood in shock. He had no words to speak. Not that he ever had, for ‘Silent Cal’ as his friends called him, was not one to talk. “Wasting unnecessary words” as he put it. But now he knew a great deal of words must be said. He had answered the loud, relentless knock on the door of the old Vermont farmhouse to find a personal messenger, the only communication link out in the country. He handed Calvin a telegram. President Harding was dead.
Calvin was a humble man, beholding to none of the vices apparent in a typical politician of the 1920’s. He had entered politics at an early age, seeking to make a difference in the world as a young idealist. But the world he witnessed as a Mayor, State Senator, and Governor had been torn apart by the First World War, and marked by an era of progressivism. Woodrow Wilson, the predecessor to the late president Harding, had set America down a path of government oversight, regulation, and nationalization. Wilson had made the people believe that the only way out of economic depression and war was through more federal action. More bills, more laws, more oversight.
Calvin took it all in. He knew it was wrong, but he was a lone voice in the crowd. He simply did not have the power to reverse the decisions of the president. Now here he was, facing the task every Vice President prays he will not need to perform. Surrounded by family, Calvin shakily stood upright as he placed his right hand on the bible and repeated the presidential oath of office; “I, Calvin Coolidge do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States …” Calvin looked at the clock. The morning of August 3rd, 1923 was two hours old. “And will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
As the American people reacted to the death of the Commander in Chief, all eyes turned to Calvin. Public opinion was not too high. After all, Calvin had lost the last presidential election of 1920 to the late President Harding, but at the last minute, he had been chosen as the Vice President by the Republican Party. It was clear that he was not the people’s choice. What was worse, his ability to reassure the people was limited, as Coolidge was nowhere near the great orator his predecessors had been.
“Silent Cal…”, the new president read on the headlines, “…to complete Harding’s term”. “They have no faith that I will serve longer than I am required”, mused Coolidge. “No confidence that I will make a difference or that I have a voice of my own. No matter”, Calvin said, folding the paper and rising from his chair in the oval office. “Actions always speak louder than words”.
It was time for Calvin to address Congress. As if the pressure was not great enough, his speech would reach into the homes and communities of America, in the first presidential speech to ever be broadcast through the radio. Coolidge sat at the table. The microphone was adjusted. He stacked his papers. He straightened his tie. He took a breath, and was live.
“Our country has one cardinal principle” he began. “It is an American principle. It must be an American policy. We attend to our own affairs, conserve our own strength, and protect the interests of our own citizens. We recognize thoroughly our obligation to help others… we realize the common bond of humanity. We know the inescapable law of service.” He went on, speaking of America’s greatness, it’s freedoms and liberties, at war with the standing progressive agenda. He told of economic troubles that would be inevitable if government was allowed to enforce more restrictions. And he promised the people that he would indeed be a silent president. He would foster an atmosphere of economic growth, not through government oversight, but by allowing the people to thrive without micromanagement.
In the year that followed, Coolidge vetoed dozens of forward progressive bills, halting the needless expansion of the federal budget. He prevented harmful subsidies, stopped the nationalization of utilities, and lowered the income tax across the board. He lived out his term as president according to his maxim “It is better to stop a corrupt bill, than pass a good one”.
As the policies began to show the positive effects Coolidge knew they would, public opinion shifted overwhelmingly in his favor. He had proved his metal, and was rewarded with the presidency for four more years. For the American people, life could not have been better. Coolidge’s silent policy of ‘action through inaction’ delivered on it’s promises: the economic growth of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ fueled entrepreneurs with the ability to provide modern conveniences to the nation; the radio, telephone, and automobile became commonplace. The unemployment rate was plummeting, and taxes were cut in half. But amongst the glory and excitement, Coolidge, the man who delivered it all, stayed reclusive and silent as ever.
The people trusted him. The spotlight had fallen on him, and instead of responding to the popular cry for “action” and “oversight”, he had stepped aside, and let it shine on the beauties of an unregulated economy and the ingenuity, charity, and courage of the American people who made it. Calvin had finally had his chance to change the world. He could have been remembered as a president of loud, passionate reform, as the previous progressive presidents were, but instead, Coolidge remained true to himself; silent, humble, and true.
The ultimate testament to his humility came when Coolidge turned down a second term, knowing that he had done his duty, since that fateful August day in the Vermont farmhouse. World changing power had been thrust into his hands. He could have pursued greatness though his own legislation, but he chose instead to give the American people that he believed in a chance to pursue the greatness in themselves. After his immense success in reducing the government budget, putting the money back in the people’s hands, and boosting the economy by reducing the government’s involvement in it, Calvin had changed the world. “Actions speak louder than words” Coolidge repeated to himself as his car left the White House, en route to his Vermont farm. “The people will not forget this era, what they have accomplished, what they have seen”.
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