During the course of the current presidential administration I have heard critics of President Donald Trump compare him unfavorably to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But such comparisons are unfair, because those are iconic bars few could rise to. I think a more apt — and workable — point of comparison is Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States.
When was the last time any of us thought about Silent Cal, a man famous for his paucity of words, and for a countenance that brought Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore Roosevelt) to remark that he looked as if he had been weaned on a pickle? And then there is the famous — and probably apocryphal — story of the young woman seated next to the president at a dinner party. She had purportedly remarked to Coolidge that she had bet someone that she could get more than two words out of him. His response: “You lose.”
Coolidge came to mind recently while I was watching news clips of Trump spouting profanity to adoring audiences. But in a profane age he may simply be reflecting the times.
However, what bothers me most about the man is that, in contrast to Coolidge, he never seems at a loss for words. In short, he talks too much, emitting a tsunami of language awash with exaggerations: “I am a very stable genius“; delusions: the server of the Democratic National Committee is in Ukraine; and downright lies ( more than 15,000 documented to date; take your pick). In fact, the mire of Trump’s language is so thick with words that it’s mesmerizing, to the point where teasing out truth from fiction is akin to separating malignancies from healthy tissue.
All of this has brought me to long for the compelling reticence of Silent Cal, who measured his words with the care and deliberation of a chemist assaying rare metals. He was a man deeply aware of his position, his power and the degree to which the citizenry looked to him for reassurance and direction. The proof of this is in his own utterance, to wit: “The words of a President have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”
Beautiful words. I’ve often wanted to quote them while laboring under the weight of a Trumpian speech. But of course the comparison between Trump and Coolidge goes beyond mere volume of language. The contrast in content is, to say the least, striking. A sampling:
Trump: “I’m speaking with myself … because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
Coolidge: “It takes a great man to be a good listener.”
Trump: “My wife says I’m the biggest star in the world.”
Coolidge: “You can’t know too much, but you can say too much.”
Trump: “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
Coolidge: “Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.“
At this juncture I’d like to emphasize that Coolidge was a Republican, giving the lie to the assumption that most Republicans are, by nature, ignorant and ineloquent. The panoply of erudite, capable, thoughtful Republican presidents is impressive and includes the likes of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
Was Coolidge one of the greats? Probably not, but he chose his words carefully and was well-behaved. Most importantly, perhaps, was that, in contrast to Trump, he didn’t think too much of himself (and would certainly have bristled at the suggestion that he possessed extraordinary intelligence).
I have heard it said that, should Trump lose the 2020 election, he may resist leaving office. Rather than speculate on the republic’s options should he decide on such a course, I’d like to give Coolidge the last word on the subject: “We draw our presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
I miss him.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing.