My dinner with Calvin

David Pietrusza Author, "Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography"
Font Size:

My phone rang late on a Friday evening. The number was from an area code with which I wasn’t too familiar.

Would I be able to attend a dinner in Manhattan honoring Amity Shlaes on the occasion of the publication of her new Calvin Coolidge biography?

Well, yes — yes, I would.

The invitation was unexpected and to an outside observer perhaps illogical: I was also issuing a Coolidge biography, mine a “documentary biography,” and I might be seen as engaged in a rivalry of scholarship — and also commerce — with Ms. Shlaes.

But, in fact, no rivalry existed. We are mutual friends of the late Mr. Coolidge and, more to the point, just plain friends of each other.

So, yes — of course I would be there.

By now you must be wondering, “Why Coolidge?”

Everyone asks, “Why Coolidge?”

We are quite used it.

Here is my sound-bite answer (or, at least, one of them): Every politician who comes down the pike promises you four or five of the same things. He or she will cut taxes, reduce unemployment, spur growth, balance the budget, and suppress inflation. They all promise such things. They never do them, and we fall for it every time. Calvin Coolidge accomplished all of the above — and the historians say he was in office for five years and never did a damn thing. It’s time to set the record straight. That’s why I wrote about Coolidge.

Amity Shlaes’ new book, fittingly titled “Coolidge,” has indeed set crooked mainstream history straight — on those items and on quite a few others — and with a splash that is finally getting the world’s attention. And for those of us who were for Coolidge long after it was cool, we now, thanks to her, anticipate being able to say we were for Coolidge before it was cool.

And so, we dined in Manhattan a few nights later, a select group of friends, family, and Coolidge devotees, roughly two dozen in all. There was researcher Joanne Dooley (who had made the remarkable discovery that opens Ms. Shlaes’ book of a Coolidge landing in a Vermont debtors’ prison); Tim Duggan, the book’s editor at Harper Collins; Katy Roberts, Ms. Shlaes’ editor at Bloomberg View; Catherine Freeman of the George W. Bush Institute; James Piereson of the William E. Simon Foundation and the Center for the American University; documentarian Michael Pack; Manhattan Institute President Lawrence Mone (whose organization had just sponsored a Shlaes appearance — it was indeed a busy night); philanthropist Thomas Tisch; publisher and all-around genius Steve Forbes (who had provided Ms. Shlaes with encouragement during the book’s delay last year) — and, of course, daughter Flora and husband Seth Lipsky, he the legendary editor of the Jewish Daily Forward and the New York Sun. The latter two, shall we say, have shared in the process more than most.

And then, of course, there was Ms. Shlaes, her voice betraying a slight hoarseness from delivering 35 or so radio interviews in the previous few days. When one has a monster hit on “Silent Cal,” personal silence is not an option.

And … there was President Calvin Coolidge himself.

While Mr. Coolidge may not gush over favors rendered, he is, nonetheless, no ingrate.

And so that evening he was present, in spirit, indeed, but also in the temporal form of renowned Coolidge interpreter Jim Cooke. Mr. Cooke, himself a somewhat terse New Englander, is not merely a presidential re-enactor and skilled actor, but as fine a Coolidge scholar as anyone in the room that night, or in any other room.

Ms. Shlaes has noted (quite correctly and with no denigration of any other work) that “the best biography of Calvin Coolidge was written by Calvin Coolidge himself.” In his autobiography, Coolidge teaches readers not only about himself but also about how to think and how to write. Thus, it was most appropriate that shortly into the evening’s events the bow-tied Mr. Lipsky disappeared into the hall only to return with the double-breasted Mr. Coolidge in the form of Mr. Cooke (or was it Mr. Cooke in the form of Mr. Coolidge?). The latter bore with him two dozen long-stemmed roses for Ms. Shlaes and, between bites of roast lamb, an evening of the best of Calvin Coolidge for the rest of us.

Cooke/Coolidge spoke of the influence of Coolidge’s father (the son could not recall the father ever doing anything wrong) and of the president’s beautiful and effervescent wife Grace (“We thought we were made for each other”). He narrated the tale of Will Rogers’ vocal impersonation of Coolidge and how Grace had commented that hers was the better of the two and beyond that how she proceeded to back up her boast for Mr. Rogers with her own version. Rogers conceded defeat, but countered by noting, “Look what you had to go through to learn it.”

He told the tale of Coolidge being interrogated by Grace regarding that Sunday morning’s sermon. She had not been able to attend.

“What was it about?” she inquired.

“Sin,” came his trademark monosyllabic answer.

“Well, what did the minister say about it?”

“He was against it.”

At one point in the evening, Mr. Lipsky asked for comment on the famed Coolidge “persistence” quote. Recently, Ms. Shlaes and I had co-authored an article indicating that while Silent Cal may have uttered many (brief) things, the evidence that he had ever issued the words in question was pretty dicey.

I began to recite the verse from memory. But while Jim Cooke’s memory may be nearly perfect, mine is nearly imperfect, and I called to the bullpen (or rather to the far end of the table) for his assistance, and he provided the gathering with this more authentic version:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

In retrospect that brief colloquy takes on more meaning to me. In “Historians’ Fallacies,” historian David Hackett Fischer wrote of the fallacy of the false dichotomy. In other words, a certain event may not necessarily exclude another. The world is not always “A” or “B.” Sometimes, it may be “A” and “B.” Amity Shlaes certainly has talent and genius and education. She has those qualities in spades. But, in “Coolidge,” she has also exhibited rare and admirable persistence — and in the process, delivered a game-changer of a book.

It was, shall we say, too brief an evening.

David Pietrusza (www.davidpietrusza.com) is the editor of “Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Wit & Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge,” “Coolidge on the Founders: Reflections on the American Revolution & The Founding Fathers,” and the recently released “Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography.”