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Robert Sobel
Robert Sobel
Coolidge: An America Enigma
ISBN: 0895264102
Coolidge: An America Enigma
In the first full-scale biography of Calvin Coolidge in a generation, Robert Sobel shatters the caricature of our thirtieth president as a silent, do-nothing leader.

Sobel instead exposes the real Coolidge, whose legacy as the most Jeffersonian of all twentieth-century presidents still reverberates today. Sobel delves into the record to show how Coolidge cut taxes four times, had a budget surplus every year in office, and cut the national debt by a third in a period of unprecedented economic growth.

Though his list of accomplishments is impressive, Calvin Coolidge was perhaps best known and most respected by his contemporaries for his character. Americans in the 1920’s embraced Coolidge for his upstanding character, which came as a breath of fresh air after the scandal-ridden administration of Warren G. Harding. The sleaze that characterizes much of American political life today was absent in his administration.

In many respects Coolidge was of a bygone era. He was the last president who wrote his own speeches, who spent hours each day greeting White House visitors, who had only one secretary, and who didn’t even keep a telephone on his desk. Yet he remains as relevant today as he was three-quarters of a century ago. Little wonder, then, that Ronald Reagan so admired Coolidge, whose programs in the 1920’s presaged the recent movement toward smaller government and reduced taxes. (It was Reagan who ordered Coolidge’s portrait to be placed in the White House Cabinet Room, next to Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s.)

Through research and analysis, Sobel reveals Coolidge’s clear record of political successes and delivers the message that Coolidge had for our time a message that speaks directly to our most important political debates.

Coolidge remains an enigma to Americans because he was so unlike any other politician, past or present. Coolidge rose to the highest office in the land without the politician’s familiar trappings the glad-handing, the glib tongue, the empty promises, the negative campaigning. He lacked charisma, presence, charm, or any of the qualities that would make a politician attractive to today’s media. Coolidge’s legacy is his deeds, not his words which is exactly how he would have chosen to be remembered by history.

Coolidge: An American Enigma dispels the myths that have gathered around this underappreciated president and gives him the serious consideration he merits. With this timely and important biography, Sobel has surely challenged historians to reassess Calvin Coolidge.
—from the publisher's website

Coolidge: An America Enigma
Program Air Date: August 30, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert Sobel, why do you call Calvin Coolidge `an American enigma'?
ROBERT SOBE, AUTHOR, COOLIDGE: AN AMERICAN ENIGMA": I think he's an enigma because the people in his time didn't really understand him, and I don't think we understand him today. He was a very complicated individual.
LAMB: What was complicated about him?
SOBEL: The complication was he was what he seemed. There was no artifice. And I think Robert Ferrell once said that there are three presidents in the 20th century who could have lived without being--coming presidents, and th--one of them's Coolidge, the other one's Harding, and the third was Harry Truman. I would add William Howard Taft, also. He was a man who was a s--straightforward, honest. They said of him--his enemies said of him that, `You may not like what he stands for, but you know he believes it, and you know he'll deliver. He will do--who--who will work very hard and he will always be st--honest to what his beliefs happen to be.' And that--that's the way he was.
LAMB: Which president was he, and when did he serve as president?
SOBEL: He was the 30th president, and he served from 1923 to 1929.
LAMB: In the f--introduction of your book, you say that there are no major revelations in this book. You say that it's not based on original research, and there's not a complete picture. Why did you qualify it with all those three?
SOBEL: Because when you crawl into a person's skin, something sticks to you when you get out, and that's the kinda thing Coolidge would say, full disclosure. And what I'm saying here is that here's a forgotten president, a misunderstood president. The record is there. Whatever original research I did was in the documents of the time--the newspapers, the magazines--to find out what people thought of him. So I did that, but there's no Coolidge library. There are no Coolidge papers that haven't been looked at. So wh--what can you say? The answer is that I've gone through all the documents that I could find and I've reflected upon them, and it's a new interpretation.
LAMB: You tell the story of the exact moment that he became president, where he was and what were the circumstances. Would you mind repeating them?
SOBEL: Well, this was the summer of 1923, August, and Washington is awfully hot in August. There are no--no air conditioning, so the city emptied out, and Coolidge was going back to his father's farm--his father's house, actually, in Plymouth Notch. His father wanted him there because they had some repairs to be done--to--to chop down a tree, to get some shingles on the--and Coolidge was doing these things. And he went to sleep that night, and that was a time when Harding died on the West Coast, San Francisco. And they called the general store, which was across from the house, and th--the proprietor was asleep. That was the only telephone. There was no telephone at the house, no electric lighting, no indoor plumbing. It was a very sh--primitive house.

So they called Ludlow and they got some newspaper people and others and the Secret Service, and they came to the house at 1:00 in the morning. They knocked on the door, and Coolidge's father answered with a lantern in his hand, `What is it?' `President Harding has died. We have to speak to Calvin Coolidge immediately.' And he called upstairs, and Coolidge later said, `I knew something was wrong from the tone of his voice.' He came downstairs. He learned about this. He went upstairs, got dressed, prayed, went across the street to the general store, which is now open, and called Washington to find out what he has to do. And they said, `You have to be sworn in immediately.' `Well, who can do it?' `A judge.' `There's no judge here. My father's a notary public. Could he do it?' And the answer was, `Yes, he can.' So he went back into the house, and by the lantern, father, holding the family Bible, Coolidge is sworn into the presidency at--a little after 1:00 in the morning.
LAMB: You say in your book he went back to bed.
SOBEL: Went back to bed, got up the next morning, dressed, washed up, got into the car, walked out, and as he walked out, he noticed a--a--a stone was missing from the step, and he said to his father, `You better get that fixed.' Gets into the car, starts driving off, and he tells them, `Stop.' Stops the car, goes to the family cemetery and goes to his mother's grave, prays, gets back into the car, and he's off to the train.
LAMB: Here's a picture in your book. Who are these folks? Looks like Mrs. Coolidge and the sons.
SOBEL: That's right. Mrs. Coolidge, John Coolidge and Calvin Jr., and a smiling Calvin Coolidge.
LAMB: How often did that happen?
SOBEL: A lot. But the newspapers had an image of Coolidge. They weren't--they liked him, by the way; he s--had a very good press. And they wanted to have a--the--the `man who was weaned on a sour pickle' picture, so the--the--the--the Forbes Library at Smith College has hundreds of s--smiling Calvin Coolidge pictures.
LAMB: Here's another picture of Calvin Coolidge with his wife and a telephone. Where's that?
SOBEL: That's in their--that's in their o--o--home in Boston, where he's hearing the news about his nomination, I think. Grace Coolidge was a teacher of the deaf and dumb. She's considered by some the first modern first lady. She was a charming woman, very talkative. She was once asked why, and she said, `I have to talk for two,' because `silent Cal' had the reputation of not talking very much, which was not a deserved reputation, by the way.
LAMB: Where was Calvin Coolidge born?
SOBEL: Plymouth Notch in Vermont, near the...
LAMB: You ever been there?
SOBEL: Yes, I was there just a few days ago.
LAMB: What's there?
SOBEL: There's a house, a church, a store, a--a cheese factory and a visitors center, which, of course, came later.
LAMB: How long did he live there?
SOBEL: He lived there until he was in his early teens, then he went away to school, Black River Academy.
LAMB: What did his father do?
SOBEL: His father was the pr--typical big fish in a little pond. He owned a store for a while before he sold it to his brother-in-law. He was a official in town, a justice of the peace, sheriff. He went to the state Legislature for a while. He speculated land. Calvin Coolidge always said that he was never half the man his father was. He admired his father greatly.
LAMB: In your book, you have a lot of correspondence between Calvin Coolidge and his father. How often did he write him, and what kinda things did he say to his father that he wouldn't say to anybody else?
SOBEL: Well, I think they're very revealing. The one thing you find out is that Calvin Coolidge, after he was married and in state office, says to his father, `I could use a check for $20.' He was not--he was penurious, but he w--he did not have enough money very often. His father provided the money. He tells him of his hopes and his fears and he wants to know how things are at home. At one point his stepmother was very sick. He said, `I hope you're taking good care of her.' He was very careful about that. At one point his father says--after Coolidge becomes a lawyer and doesn't know what to do with himself, he can't find a place--he says, `Maybe you can get a job as a clerk someplace.' And Coolidge says, `I didn't go to become a lawyer to become a clerk.'

It's--and it's always, `My dearest father.' Whenever they met, he'd--they'd kiss. You had the president of the United States meeting his father, Secret Service around, the press, and he's kissing his father.
LAMB: Did they make a big thing out of that back in those days?
SOBEL: No, it's just the--the way he was. And he's not gonna change just because he's president of the United States.
LAMB: This letter came from January 1st, 1926, and it was to his father, and he just wrote this--it struck me when I read it that I wanted to ask you about this. He says, `I suppose'--he was president of the United States. He says, `I suppose I'm the most powerful man in the world, but great power does not mean much except great limitations. I cannot have any freedom, even to go and come. I am only in the clutch of forces that are greater than I am. Thousands are waiting to shake my hand today.' Back in 1926, the president of the United States said that he was the most powerful man in the world.
SOBEL: He was.
LAMB: Was he?
SOBEL: Oh, yes, but the difference between Coolidge and the presidents we have today is that you had a different kind of a presidency back then. Franklin Roosevelt revolutionizes the presidency, as he did so much other things in American life. After Roosevelt, a person becomes president because he wants to do something. He wants to change things. Calvin Coolidge did not want to change things. He wanted to carry out the pledges that Harding had made, and then he made a few of his own in the next election, and he wanted to cut the taxes, which he did. The national debt was two-thirds of what it was when--after he left office, when he came in. You had peace, prosperity, low inflation, low unemployment. He never took credit for this, by the way. He--this--the economy did that.

And he wanted to maximize freedom for the American people, and freedom for the American people meant taking the 10th Amendment to the Constitution very seriously: `Those powers not given to the federal government are retained by the states.' And so when Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts, he was a very strong governor, had a large legislative operation. When he becomes president, he says, `That's not my job. It's the governor's job. And I'll take care of the other things.'
LAMB: I made a list of some things you wrote down. He says--he--he did not own a motorcar, was the last president to have not flown on an airplane, never traveled west of the Mississippi, only went to Montreal and Havana outside the United States.
SOBEL: Well, this is before he became president. After he became president he traveled more, and when he left the White House he took a long trip to the West Coast, 1930. But he didn't do this. A--a--at one point, he had a chance as a state legislator to go on a junket to California, and he turned it down. And when the news came out, the people who went on that junket were in hot water with the people. And he said, `I told you.'
LAMB: Why did you get interested in doing this?
SOBEL: I did a book years ago called the "Great Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1920s." And in the process of doing the research for that book, I realized that--this was the 1960s, by the way, and we had a bull market going in the country--I realized that the kind of education that I had received had played down the aspects that I just spoke about. Coolidge and Hoover and Harding were much better for the times than I had imagined. So I did anoth--another book on Hoover, a small book: "Herbert Hoover at the Onset of the Great Depression." And at this point, the Hoo--the Hoo--the Hoover boom was starting among historians. They were reassessing his position. And then the Harding Papers were released and Harding was being reassessed. And in the middle was Calvin Coolidge. And I did my own reassessing, and I decided I wanted to write a book.
LAMB: If you're gonna go places--Calvin Coolidge, where do you go?
SOBEL: I don't understand. I'm sorry.
LAMB: If you want to research him, where do you find him?
SOBEL: Oh, Library of Congress, National Archives and Smith College, the Forbes Library.
LAMB: And what do you find in each of those places that you need?
SOBEL: You find some documents, but not many. And the documents in all three places have been pored over by historians in the past, so there's not much you can get out of it.
LAMB: When was the last biography written on Calvin Coolidge?
SOBEL: About 30 years ago, McCoy--Dave McCoy, and it's a g--it's a good book.
LAMB: You mention more than once that Ronald Reagan hung his portrait in the White House in a special place.
SOBEL: Yes, in the Cabinet Room. When Reagan became president, he walked into the Cabinet Room with the person that took care of these things, and he looked at the wall and there was a picture of Harry Truman. And the person who took care of these rooms knew about Reagan, and he said, in effect, `I guess Mr. C--Truman comes down and Calvin Coolidge goes up?' And that was what happened. Reagan said on many occasions that Calvin Coolidge was his favorite president. And when people said, `Well, that means you're a conservative--very conservative,' he says, `Well, I voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times, also. He's one of my favorites as well. It's possible to admire Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge at the same time.'
LAMB: There's a photo in the book of a funeral in July of 1924, where the president and his wife are standing. What is this?
SOBEL: That's the funeral of his son, Calvin Jr. It was a very sad story. This is during the Democratic Convention in New York, in '24. And Calvin was playing tennis, and he stubbed his toe, and it became infected.
LAMB: How old was he?
SOBEL: I think he was 18 or 19 years old. And he died, and Coolidge wrote in his autobiography later on that when he died, all the glory of the president went with him. Coolidge was dogged by death throughout his entire life. His mother died when he was a very young boy. He loved his mother. Then his sister died, his only sibling. People were always dying at--at critical points in Calvin Coolidge's life. When his father died, he w--he--he was crushed, too.
LAMB: What impact do you think it really had on him that his--that his son died when he was in the White House?
SOBEL: Oh, I think it has to--it has to have a large impact, especially so young and in such a strange way. Abraham Lincoln had a son die in the White House, too. But he kept on working. This is '24. The Ku Klux Klan had a march in Washington that year, over 20,000. Coolidge was not in the White House, but a few weeks later he gave a talk on the subject, and he said, `We all came to America on different boats, but we're in the same boat now, and we have to learn to get along with each other.' He was a very strong person on civil rights. So th--he kept on working, despite the death of his son, but it did have a very strong effect upon him.
LAMB: Why do you think he didn't run for that second term that he could have run for?
SOBEL: I think there were several reasons. One reason was the death of his son. The second was that if he ran and won--and he probably would have won--he would have been in the White House, when he left the White House, longer than any person in American history. He didn't think that was right. And he had done everything he had set out to do. The country was in fine shape; there were no crises. So he decided to step down.
LAMB: When he stepped down, what was the financial situation in the States?
SOBEL: Very good; the outlook was very pleasing.
LAMB: Was there a surplus?
SOBEL: Yes, a v--a very small surplus in his last year, but there was a surplus.
LAMB: During the time--and he was in, six years or five--five years-plus...
SOBEL: Five--five-plus, yes.
LAMB: many times did he have a surplus?
SOBEL: Every year, and he paid off one-third of the national debt.
LAMB: And you say there were 135,000 men under arms and about 95,000 in the Navy at that time?
SOBEL: I think it was less than that, but tha--tha--that's the ball--good ballpark figure.
LAMB: Why did they need either that small a force, depending on what you think of it today, where there's a half-million--million and a half people under arms, or why did they have that large a force?
SOBEL: Well, o--one of the important d--developments during Coolidge's administration is the war we did not get into. Mexico had a revolution. They were nationalizing properties, including American properties. There was a conflict with the church, and there were some Americans who felt we should intervene. Remember, we had intervened under Wilson, and we had, of course, the Mexican War. This is something that goes on. So if--when--when Cuba becomes Communist 90 miles off our border, well, there's Mexico, looking as though it's becoming Communist. And this is the period right after the great Red Scare of the 1920 period.

Secretary of State Kellogg was talking war, and Coolidge did not want this. And, of course, if we had a war we had to have an Army and a Navy, so Coolidge called an old college chum of his, Dwight Morrow, and said, `I want you to go to Mexico and become our ambassador.' And Morrow said, `Well, what are my instructions?' And Coolidge said, `To keep us out of war with Mexico.' And that's exactly what happened. We didn't go to war with Mexico. And for these things and others like it, you had to have an Army. And, of course, Coolidge--Coolidge preferred spending money on the Army to the Navy 'cause the Navy cost too much.
LAMB: Also in your book that in--from 1912 to 1926, we had troops in Nicaragua.
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What was that about?
SOBEL: Insurrections in Nicaragua. Coolidge sent the troops in, took them out, put them back in again. He did not like--he did not like to do these things, by the way. And the--the reason he went to Cuba for that talk was in order to try to get on better terms with Latin Americans and tell them, in effect, we don't want to be there, but we have to to protect lives and property.
LAMB: What were we doing with 4,000 Marines in Shanghai during those times?
SOBEL: The Chinese were having a revolution, also, and we had the open-door policy, or course, much earlier and th--there was American interests in China and they were there to protect it.
LAMB: Got a picture here--and there are several in your book--this one right here of Calvin Coolidge milking a cow.
LAMB: What's that about?
SOBEL: Notice the smock that he's wearing. That's his grandfather's, and the hat. This is the way Vermont farmers dressed. And, incidentally, I think the reason he did that was to--for the reporters. They loved to take pictures of Coolidge dressed this way, with Indian head garb and things of that nature. And as a boy, Coolidge m--milk--milked cows. He was a farm boy, and he saw nothing wrong with doing this.
LAMB: You also have a picture of him here with that--looks like a pitchfork in his hand.
SOBEL: Yes. That was on that trip where he became president. And he was there to help his father. His father said, `Calvin, there are some chores that need to be done; I'd like you to come up here and take care of it.' And the vice president of the United States said, `Fine, Father, I'll be there.' And he went up there and did them.
LAMB: How did he find his way to Northampton, Massachusetts?
SOBEL: Well, he went to college at Amherst in '74, and he was chosen by the senior class to deliver the Grove Oration, which is supposed to be a hu--a humorous speech. And he was the funniest person in the class.
LAMB: Calvin Coolidge?
SOBEL: Yes. Great sense of humor. Wi--Will Rogers said he's the funniest person he knew. And he delivered the s--Grove Oration, and in the audience was a man called Field, who was a lawyer from Northampton. And he heard this and he said, `I wanted to meet this man 'cause I like to laugh.' And Coolidge wanted to go to law school or read for the law. Well, he decided to read for the law, and he went into Field's office, which was in Northampton, and he read for the law for two years. And then Field put him up for the bar and he cu--he became a member of the bar. And then the question was: Where would he practice? And he s--but he considered many places. C--he considered going back to Vermont. But he decided to open up an office in Northampton, and there he stayed.
LAMB: How did he first get into politics?
SOBEL: Oh, school board and things like that; local offices for the most part. He would go up the rung, one step at a time, up the ladder. And...
LAMB: Well, as I was reading it, I kept making notes of the different jobs he had, and this is not a perfect list nor are they--I just wrote it down at the last minute...
SOBEL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and we put it on a--on a slide. I want to show it to you here. (Graphic on screen) Position Year Age

City Solicitor 1900 28

State Rep. 1905 33

Mayor 1908 36

State Sen. 1911 39

State Senate Pres. 1914 42

Lt. Governor 1916 44
LAMB: It shows him starting off as city solicitor and...
SOBEL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...going to state representative...
SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: ...mayor, back to the Senate, becoming president of the Senate, and then lieutenant governor. And you can see the age of Calvin Coolidge along the way.
SOBEL: Mm-hmm. (Graphic on screen) Position Year Age

Governor 1919 47

Vice President 1921 49

President 1923 51

Left Office 1929 57

Died 1933 61
LAMB: And then he went to be the governor of Massachusetts, vice president of the United States, president; left office at age 57, and then died at age 61.
SOBEL: That's about it.
LAMB: What did we miss on that list?
SOBEL: School boards and the fact that in some of those places he ran twice or three times. In all, he ran for office 19 times. He was elected 17 of those times. No person ever ran for office more than he did who became president. He was once asked when he was vice president if he had any hobbies. He said, `Yes, running for office.'
LAMB: Why do you think he won so much?
SOBEL: There was something about him. Notice that they're all local offices until you get to the vice presidency. He knew his constituents and the constituents knew him. Long before there were Reagan Democrats, there were Coolidge Democrats. Coolidge used to go out after the Democratic vote, and he said that, `If a Democrat votes for me, that's two votes, one less for my opponent and one more for me.' He rang doorbells. He stopped people in the street. He was--he was not a back-slapper, don't get me wrong, but he was a very effective campaigner, and he had this reputation for honesty and for courage. And the people liked that.
LAMB: How old is he in this picture?
SOBEL: Oh, that's--that's taken when he was in school. I guess he must have been in his late teens.
LAMB: And in the one below it?
SOBEL: That's the--a presidential photo.
LAMB: Did he smile much when he became president?
SOBEL: Yes, and he cracked a lot of jokes.
LAMB: He had, you say, a smaller staff in the White House than he did as governor?
LAMB: And you also say in the book that he had just one secretary.
SOBEL: That's right. And no telephone on his desk. He thought it was unseemly.
LAMB: Why?
SOBEL: He thought it was undignified. Presidents should not make telephone calls from their desks. Besides, people may hear you, might--might eavesdrop.
LAMB: How did you get into this whole business of writing books, and what book is this for you?
SOBEL: Oh, somewhere between 30 and 40, I guess. I don't remember. I don't keep track of these things.
LAMB: What was your first book?
SOBEL: It was called, "The Big Board: A History of the New York Stock Market."
LAMB: What got you interested in doing that and what year was it that you wrote that first book?
SOBEL: '62. When I got my job in college, I wanted very much to be a teacher. But if you want to be a teacher in a college, you have to write books. You have to get--to get tenure. So my chairman said, `Well, you're not gonna go very far unless you write a book.' So I said, `OK, I'll write a book.' So I wrote "The Big Board," and it did very well.
LAMB: Where were you then?
SOBEL: Hofstra University. It was Hofstra College back in those days.
LAMB: Where were you born?
SOBEL: I was born in the Bronx, in New York.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
SOBEL: Oh, local high schools, James Monroe High School. I--I was born in the area within walking distance of where Colin Powell lived. And then I went to City College. He went there, also, of course. And I graduated City College, and then I went to NYU, all New York. And after NYU, I got the--the job at Hofstra, on Long Island.
LAMB: What did you study in college?
SOBEL: My major in graduate school was Soviet-American relations, but I became interested in the stock market in this period, and I decided that I'd like to do a history of the stock market. No--no one had done a st--history of the stock market s--for 30 or 40 years, so I--I found a publisher and I--the b--the book went well.
LAMB: You got your PhD at NYU?
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: And what year did you start teaching, then?
SOBEL: Well, I got my PhD in '57, and I started teaching at Hofstra part time in '56 and full time in '57.
LAMB: Are you still there at Hofstra?
SOBEL: I just stopped teaching.
LAMB: After 40 years?
SOBEL: Forty-one years.
LAMB: Go back to that first book. Who did you sell it to?
SOBEL: Free Press. And it--it was the right book at the right time 'cause the bull market was on, people were interested in Wall Street. Again, there was no history of Wall Street. I sold the book. The book was a--a--a good--a good--the book--the right book at the right time.
LAMB: What are some of the other books you've done?
SOBEL: Well, I mentioned the "Great Bull Market." There was "Panic on Wall Street." I did histories of the New York Stock Exchange; history of the American Stock Exchange; "RCA"; ITT; IBM; Dillon, Read, the investment bank. I did Salomon Brothers. I did a book about the great bull market of the '60s. I did a book on the bull market of the 1980s, and the--the hostile takeover movement with Michael Milken. So, been a few others.
LAMB: Now which, of all those books, sold the most?
LAMB: Do you know why?
SOBEL: Yes, it was--it was a book about IBM. It was the first book about IBM in that generation.
LAMB: And how many of these books were for Free Press?
SOBEL: Not many. I publish with the--the--a great many publishers.
LAMB: Now this one is with what's known as a conservative press...
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: ...Regnery and Gateway.
LAMB: Or I guess they just call it--yeah, just Regnery.
SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: Why Regnery?
SOBEL: 'Cause they offered me a contract. I was trying to sell that book for several years, and I'd go into a publisher with an idea for a book, and he'd say to me, `I don't particularly care for that idea. Do you have anything else you're interested in doing?' And I'd say, `Yes, I'd like to do a biography of Calvin Coolidge.' And invariably, they'd laugh. That's the first thing. Also, the next thing would be, they'd tell me a couple of Coolidge jokes. And the third thing they'd say is, `No, we don't want a book on Calvin Coolidge.' And then my agent found Regnery, and the book was written.
LAMB: When did you finish this?
SOBEL: I finished that book, I think it was last November.
LAMB: On the back of y--this book is endorsed--well, there are at least two endorsements for you, and one of them is Stephen Ambrose.
LAMB: It says, `At long last a major historian has given Calvin Coolidge his due.' And then there's a quote in here from H.L. Mencken, who I assume didn't endorse the book.
SOBEL: No, he didn't--he did--we didn't contact him.
LAMB: Why did you pick H.L. Mencken? What role would he play in Calvin Coolidge's life?
SOBEL: H.L. Mencken didn't like many people in politics. He had nothing good to say about anyone. And he had some bad things to say about Calvin Coolidge, except for one thing when Coolidge was alive. He said, `He writes English beautifully.' And for Mencken, that's a--quite a statement. And then when Coolidge died, he said, in effect, what he says on the back of that book, that he came between two people who Mencken didn't particularly care for, but he was a man of solid credentials and Jeffersonian principles. And if ever we get to the point, once again, where we want Jeffersonian principles alive in our Republic, perhaps it will give Calvin Coolidge his due.
LAMB: Just before we started this, you told me that you had brought Doug Brinkley to Hofstra, and the reason I bring it up is 'cause he's played--he's been on this program...
SOBEL: I know.
LAMB: ...because of the "Majic Bus." We at this network got a couple of buses running around the country.
SOBEL: I know.
LAMB: And he endorses your book.
LAMB: He's the director of the Eisenhower Center. `Robert Sobel's "Coolidge: An American Engima" is a first-rate study of perhaps America's most misunderstood president.' Doug Brinkley to Hofstra, how did that happen?
SOBEL: Doug was writing a book on James Forrestal--co-author of the book with James Forrestal. And neither he or his co-author knew much about Forrestal's investment banking experiences with Dillon, Read. At the time, I was writing my history of Dillon, Read, and he had learned about this. And he called me, and we talked for a while and he said, `Could I come up and talk to you about this?' And he and his co-author came up and we talked for a while. And I was very impressed with him. And we had an opening in the history department. And I went to the history department and said, `I just spoke to this person yesterday who I think would fit in here beautifully. I think you ought to make him an offer.' And he came up for the interview, they agreed with me. And he went to the history department, and two years later, he came--I think it was two years--to New College, where I taught. And he taught with us for about four or five years, and that's where he had the "Majic Bus."
LAMB: You--you say you taught for 41 years. What--what was the reaction among the academic community to having a bus running around the country, and that was a device to teach?
SOBEL: Well, New College is an experimental school, and we do things that, perhaps, other schools don't do. And the reaction was very, very good. It was a huge success. The president of the school was just delighted. It was a great publicity coup for Hofstra. And we were all very sorry when Doug left.
LAMB: When you were teaching, did you ever teach about Calvin Coolidge?
SOBEL: Oh, occasionally, yes.
LAMB: And what was the reaction to him by students?
SOBEL: Most of my students never heard of him.
LAMB: Never heard of him?
SOBEL: Never heard of him. And I would talk about this, and I would say a--in a--in a perfectly straightforward way, I would say, `This is what the 1920s were like,' and I'd tal--talk about the times; and then the Great Depression occurred and the stock market, of course, and things like that; then the New Deal. And they would take it all right. I--I find that students are very open-minded about things like this. It's faculty you have to watch out for.
LAMB: Why?
SOBEL: Because we live in an age in which we expect, as I said before, certain things of our presidents. And they look before Herbert Hoover, actually, and they say, `Well, he couldn't have been much of a president because what did he do?' And the answer is, he didn't do very much, but nothing had to be done. You can have a country where everything seems to be going off pretty well. Why should you interfere? He didn't have an agenda. He wanted to get rid of an agen--Walter Lippmann once said, `Calvin Coolidge makes a studied effort not to do things.' It's not a question of having nothing to say. He doesn't want to do things because he wants to maintain the freedom for the American people. And he says it over and over again: `The American people must be free, and the way to do this is to have what government you have to have on the closest level to the people.' The mayor is important, the governor's important, but the president doesn't deal with these a--and this is a different age. This is an age in which senators are looked upon as being ambassadors from their state to Washington. And they--and they--and they believe this. This is the age of the bosses. It's the age before the--the primaries that we nominated pre--the president. The bosses controlled the conventions. We don't have that anymore. It's different.
LAMB: I did quote this from you. You said, "The party picked Coolidge for vice president, not the boss."
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What's the difference?
SOBEL: The bosses ran the 1920 convention, and the key man there was Boies Penrose, the boss of Pennsylvania, who was too sick to be there. And there--there were two major candidates: Woods and Lowden. And they ran in the primaries and they were probably the two most popular people there.
LAMB: Did the primaries count?
SOBEL: They--they were not binding. And most of them were not--the ones that were binding on the first ballot only. So it didn't mean too much. The bosses wanted someone else. Harding was all for the nomination and turned it down, but in the end, they said, `You're gonna take it.' So Harding becomes a reluctant presidential candidate. They picked the vice presidential running mate, Irvine Lenroot, a senator from Wisconsin, I believe. And Lenroot was nominated. And the second speeches came in and the--the--the--the president--the presiding officer recognized Wallace McHammet, a delegate from Oregon, who didn't like the way the bosses were controlling things. And he read a book by Coolidge--Coolidge's speeches called, "Have Faith in Massachusetts," and he liked what he read. So he nominated Coolidge. And the convention rose up in a roar and selected Coolidge. And Coolidge got the nomination. A senator from New York who had been a--who--who had been to every convention since the Republican Party was founded wrote a letter to Coolidge saying, `I have never seen anything like it. These--these things are not supposed to happen.'

But this guaranteed several things. In the first place, it guaranteed that Coolidge would not be part of the establishment in Washington. He was an outsider. They didn't want him. Of all the vice presidents who succeeded to the White House after the death of a president, only one before him had gotten the nomination, and that was Teddy Roosevelt. They couldn't even get the nomination. The--the--the idea was in 1923 that if--if Harding ran for a second term--and everyone thought he would--Coolidge would be dropped from the ticket and he'd go back to Massachusetts. Well, of course, Harding dies. And now he becomes president and they--they would like to dump him, but they can't; he's too popular. So Coolidge gets the nomination and, of course, he wins in a landslide in 1924. But the d--party still doesn't like him too much. And the--and the party is split. There's the La Follette r--Progressives, and there's the regular Republicans, and neither one is aligned with Coolidge.
LAMB: Became president in August of 1923.
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: Ran in late 1924...
SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: ...against what candidate?
SOBEL: John W. Davis and Robert La Follette.
LAMB: And Robert La Follette--trace him for--in--in politics. What party was he really in?
SOBEL: Well, he's a Republican. La Follette was a governor of--of--of his state, and a strong governor, a much stronger governor than he can be senator later on. And in 1912, he wanted to run for the presidency a--against Taft--challenged Taft in his own party.
LAMB: William Howard Taft.
SOBEL: William Howard Taft. And he--he falls ill. And because of this, he drops out and Teddy Roosevelt takes over. And Roosevelt runs in 1912 instead, and the party, of course, is divided and stays divided for quite a while. Now La Follette's still in the Senate. And now it's 1924 and he tries to run again, only this time, he doesn't create a political party, he creates a league--a r--Progressive League. And it includes Socialists and it includes Henry George people, and it includes a lot of people like this. And there was fear on the part of many people that this would throw the House--election in to the House of Representatives. And, of course, it didn't happen. Coolidge won very, very big.
LAMB: And Robert La Follette had his own party?
SOBEL: Well, the p--pr--the Progressive League, actually. It wasn't a party in '24.
LAMB: But did he try to come back to the Senate?
SOBEL: He was still in the Senate.
LAMB: But there's a point where you say that he was drummed out of the Republican Party.
SOBEL: Yes. And Coolidge opposed this but he didn't--he couldn't do anything about it. The--the--the Republicans had a group of senators, not only La Follette, a few, the farm block, and they did not support l--Coolidge in '24. And they wanted to drum them out of the party, as you say, and have them lose their seniority. And this was a mistake; it never should have been done. Coolidge tried to stop it; he couldn't do it, and there was bitter feelings for a long time after that.
LAMB: Go back to Northampton, Massachusetts. How long was he mayor there?
SOBEL: I think it was a year or two, that's all.
LAMB: When did he meet his wife, Grace?
SOBEL: Well, he met his wife when he was a lawyer. And the story was that he was standing in the window of his--his house where he boarded, d--h--shaving himself, with a hat on his head. And she looked up at the window and saw this strange apparition and she--she laughed. And he looked at her and he said later on, `I decided on first sight that I was going to marry this woman.' And she asked him after a while, `Why did you wear the hat?' And he said, `To keep my hair out of my eyes. It kept on falling over, so when I shave, I--I put on this hat.'

And he courted her for a while and her parents didn't particularly care for him, but they married and they had a very happy marriage.
LAMB: What role did she play when he was in politics?
SOBEL: 'Cause this--well, she was considered to be a very activist first lady, but the--compared to Eleanor Roosevelt, she was not. She was a--the Girl Scouts were a very important thing for her. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was a charming person, a very attractive person. Coolidge, who was not very demonstrative in public, except for his father, loved to go shopping for clothing for her. He bought her hats, things like that.
LAMB: Say she smoked?
SOBEL: Secretly. Not in pu--not in p--Coolidge also--Coolidge smoked cigars, but he did not want to smoke cigars in public.
LAMB: Why not?
SOBEL: It sets a bad example, he said.
LAMB: And he lived during the Prohibition period.
SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What was that?
SOBEL: Well, Prohibition begins after World War I and it lasts through the '20s. And all three public--three Republican presidents didn't like it. And Harding, you know, drank. Coolidge did not. So...
LAMB: So it was 15 years of Prohibition?
SOBEL: Well, from 1919 until 1933, yeah. And Harding served liquor in the White House, but Coolidge would never do this. But he--he di--he disapproved of Prohibition. The--the--Coolidge today, I guess, if he were around--and it's hard to say what he would be like--but he would be probably a member of the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party--you know, don't interfere with people's private lives. Leave them alone. Let them have privacy. And he said, `Well, it's the law. The law says we have to have Prohibition and, therefore, I'm here to enforce the law so I'll enforce the law,' which is what he did.
LAMB: He went on to the state Senate and then became president of the state Senate. How did he do that...
SOBEL: He...
LAMB: ...of--of Massachusetts?
SOBEL: Yes. The--the president of the state Senate was thinking in terms of stepping down and running for other office. So there'd be a gap there. So this is one of the very few times when Hoolidge--Coolidge acts decisively and forcefully. He takes the train to Boston and starts lining up votes, and he becomes president of the state Senate. And the interesting thing was, he got Democratic votes as well as Republican votes. He was respected on both sides of the aisle.
LAMB: What was that?--you tell a story and I know you--you have a footnote on John McCain about...
SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...the ability--well, go ahead, you tell the story.
SOBEL: Well, at one point John McCain was presiding over the Senate, and he had to step down. H--John McCain's a Republican, and he called Hollings of South Carolina up to take his place. And Hollings, a Democrat...
LAMB: This is in a committee, the...
SOBEL: This is the full Senate. And Hollings goes up and he says, `John, I--I'm a Democrat and you're a Republican. What will they say?' And McCain says a few expletives, `Who a--who cares what they say?' And Coolidge is that kind of person. The toughest thing Coolidge did in the--as governor, he said, was reorganizing the state administrative ap--apparatus, taking 20 jobs--or 20 posi--committees and making them six. And he said the Boston police strike was nothing compared to that. But he named Democrats to some of the leading positions in--in the state, and the Republicans were not too happy with this.
LAMB: How did he become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts?
SOBEL: Well, in those days, if you became lieutenant governor, the next step up was governor. It's automatic, practically. And the lieutenant governor became the guber--gubernatorial candidate, and Coolidge lobbied for the lieutenant governor's race. He--he announced for it and he won.
LAMB: And then how'd he become governor?
SOBEL: Well, the governor stepped down after two terms...
LAMB: Is it automatic?
SOBEL: Not automatic. Automatically you get the nomination.
LAMB: Was Massachusetts a Republican state?
SOBEL: Mostly Republican. So Coolidge becomes gov--and Coolidge, by the way, when he becomes vice president, is succeeded by his lieutenant governor. That's--that's the way the game is played.
LAMB: The Boston police strike, you said it--what was it all about and what impact did it have on the future of Calvin Coolidge?
SOBEL: Well, it made him a national figure. This was during the great Red Scare of the 1919 period, and the Boston police had agreed not to unionize, and they were unionizing. And Coolidge backed the police chief, a man called Curtis. And with Curtis, he said--and the--by the way, the--the--the governor controlled the police, not the mayor. He said, `You have three days to go back to work; you're breaking your contract.' And the police stayed out, and Coolidge dismissed them all--or the--the--the--actually, the--the commissioner dismissed them all.

The interesting thing about it is there were a lot of police strikes in this period. And in each of the cases, the person in charge would c--accuse the police of being Communists. Coolidge never said that. He said, `You just broke your contract.' And the head of the AF of L, Samuel Gompers, sent him a note saying--Gompers was in New York for his father's funeral--`Reconsider,' and so forth and so on, and Coolidge said, `There's no right to strike against the public interest by anyone, at anytime.' And that made him famous. That was banner headlines all over the country. And his friend, Frank Stearns, who was his political ally, had his speeches bound up in "Have Faith in Massachusetts," his most famous speech. And he sent thousands of copies out in the country. He was--he was--Stearns wanted to start a boom for Coolidge for president.
LAMB: And is this anything comparable--I know that he was governor--but to the PATCO strike for Ronald Reagan?
SOBEL: Very close. Reagan knew about this. Yeah, he s--he said this on several occasions. And it was a similar thing. The--the--the--the--the air controllers had a contract; the contract had a `no c'--`no strike' clause. And they struck. And Reagan said of--to his secretary of the tr--transportation, Drew Lewis--he said, `You have s--a few days to come back, and nothing'll happen, but if you stay out, you lose your job.' And they stayed out and Reagan fired them all.

What was not known about this, though, was that the PATCO situation was set up in advance by Carter, who feared a strike, and the whole plan of government action was set up by Carter, but Reagan carried it out.
LAMB: So he's the governor of the state of Massachusetts for how many terms?
SOBEL: Two terms.
LAMB: How does he become...
SOBEL: One-year terms.
LAMB: How does he become vice president of the United States?
SOBEL: Well, he gets on the ticket with Warren Harding and...
LAMB: How?
SOBEL: Well, I--I mentioned the fact that he--at the convention, he was nominated by acclamation by the convention, so that was...
LAMB: No. I mean, what was it that got--was it the strike that got everybody's attention?
SOBEL: Well, the strike got the attention, but Coolidge was not a bossed person. He was independent, and he had that reputation. And the delegates at the convention wanted something like this. Th--th--they were given a person who was separate--selected by the bosses, and now they wanted one of their people. And Coolidge was very popular. As if...
LAMB: Does he know Warren Harding before that?
SOBEL: Yes, they met s--on several occasions, and Harding came into Massachusetts to campaign for him, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: For governor.
SOBEL: For governor, yes. And at one point, a--one newsman said, `That's a wonderful ticket up there, you know, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.' That's what happened. And, of course, the Democrats nominate Cox, an Ohio pub--governor, and a p--and a newspaper publisher like Harding, and his running mate is Franklin Roosevelt. It was called later on, the `kangaroo election,' because the--the legs were stronger than the front.
LAMB: Go back to the "Have Faith in Massachusetts" speech. And I have a--it opened at part of the excerpts here. I'll just read a little bit of it just so people--where'd he make this, by the way?
SOBEL: He made it before the st--this is his inauguration speech as lieutenant governor.
LAMB: And he says that, `In--in this speech, before the state Senate, after the obligatory salute, Coolidge said, "This commonwealth is one. We are all members of one body. The welfare of the weakest and the welfare of the most powerful are inseparably bound together. Industry cannot flourish if labor languish; transportation cannot prosper if manufacturers decline. The general welfare cannot be provided for in--for in any one act, but it is well to remember that the benefit of one is the benefit of all, and the neglect of one is the neglect of all; the suspension of one man's dividends is the suspension of another man's pay envelope."'

You--you mention have--the "Have Faith in Massachusetts" speech a lot in this.
LAMB: Why?
SOBEL: Well, because Coolidge was one of the most graceful writers of the English language that we've had in the White House. His autobiography is 254 pages long. He wrote it in about six months. It is beautifully written. I--I--I read that book when I was in my 20s. I wa--I wasn't thinking about writing a Coolidge biography. I just picked it up. And I was struck by how this man was a master of the language. Many of his speeches are this way. And Frank--Teddy Roosevelt used the White House as a bully pulpit, to--everyone knows this. He did, also. He gave many speeches on morality, on ethics, on how we're responsible for each other. He was very much affected by a college teacher called Charles Gorman, who was a transcendentalist. And Coolidge was a religious person; not--not a churchgoer; he didn't belong to a church until he became president. He was a Congregationalist. But he would--he would--he would lecture the American people on how--how we have to be decent to each other. Those speeches on race relations, for example, are something. He went to Howard University and delivered a commencement address there, the first American president to do this. And it was a speech on race relations.

He was asked to get a black candidate in New York off the ballot, a Republican, and he wrote back saying, `You--the--the black soldiers fought in the war for us, for all of us. Not--there's no cases of--of desertion or anything like that, and they have every right to be as much an American as the rest of us are.'
LAMB: You also say later on, `In these words we see the Coolidge whom Ronald Reagan admired, the Coolidge who has been lost to the caricature of silent Cal.' And I want to read a little bit more of the--of the address, but I want to ask you, who named him `silent Cal'?
SOBEL: He was called silent Cal by reporters at the time. And tha--well, it wasn't because he didn't speak very much. He had two press conferences a week. He delivered more speeches per week on the average than any president in American history.
LAMB: You, by the way, say there were 520 press conferences while he was president.
SOBEL: Yeah, that's right, twice a week. And the press loved him. He would ask for questions in advance, he'd read them off, he'd answer whatever questions he wanted to answer. And the--these--these press conferences have been kept. We know--we have the transcripts. And he was amazingly up on the issues. He--he knew quite a bit.
LAMB: Do you remember, by the way, are they--where are--they're kept, where you can read them?
SOBEL: It's in a book. And it's called--a book by Quint and Ferrell, edited, and it's called--I forget the--the n--I forget the name of the book. But...
LAMB: Are the original transcripts at the Library of Congress or at the archives? Have you seen them?
SOBEL: It's in the archives--National Archives. I saw--I've seen them.
LAMB: In the speech, he said, `Do the day's work.'
SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: `If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it is to help a powerful corporation, do that. Expect to be called a `stand patter,' but don't be a stand patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don't be a demagogue. Don't hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don't hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don't hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with the legislation. We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people, a faith that men desire to do right, that the commonwealth is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconstructive faith that the final approval of the people is given not to demagogues slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandizing with the clamor of the hour, but to the statesmen ministering to their welfare, representing their deep silent, abiding conviction.' That's a long quote, but...
LAMB: ...I wanted those who had never read him to hear that. Do you think he wrote that himself?
SOBEL: He wrote all his speeches himself. As a matter of fact, there was one speech on music that he did not write. And his wife knew it because he didn't know much about music. Someone wrote it for him. This was when he was governor. And th--when the time came to deliv--to gather those speeches into "Have Faith in Massachusetts," he left that speech out. It wasn't his speech, he couldn't include it.
LAMB: Photos in the book, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Mrs. Coolidge, his father, who was named `The Colonel.' Who named John Coolidge, his father, `The Colonel'?
SOBEL: The g--the governor put him on his staff and gave him the honorary rank of colonel.
LAMB: Where is this picture taken, right here?
SOBEL: I think that picture was taken at the--the Ford Museum in Deerfield. I think. And that's the famous picture where Coolidge gave a bucket that belonged to his grandfather. And he said, `Mr. Ford, this bucket belonged to my grandfather, it belongs to me, now it belongs to you,' typical Coolidge saying, I guess.
LAMB: When he was president--and you said he was the 30th president--he was the first to give an address on the radio?
SOBEL: That's right. Well, I--I shouldn't say that. We have recordings of Warren Harding. But Harding hardly ever used the radio. But Coolidge used the radio quite often.
LAMB: How did he use it?
SOBEL: He--to deliver speeches. He would no--he was voted in 1925 the fourth-most-popular radio personality. And the first three were singers. And Will--Will Rogers came in seventh.
LAMB: What did he do with the State of the Union? Becau--the reason I ask 'cause you--I keep reading in your book that he had a clerk deliver the State of the Union.
SOBEL: Well, the first one he delivered himself, but after that, the clerk--this was c--the common practice. Thomas Jefferson stopped delivering the State of Union addresses, and all presidents after him, until you get to Woodrow Wilson, sent the messages up. And Wilson d--decided to revive the practice, and when he did it Teddy Roosevelt said, `I wish I'd thought of that.'
LAMB: Photo here with Warren--not Warren Harding but Herbert Hoover...
SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: ...and his--Grace Coolidge on his right. What was the relationship between Hoover and Coolidge?
SOBEL: Not too good. Herbert Hoover was an activist. He wanted an activist presidency. When he--and he was one when he became president. He was a Wilsonian. Once Coolidge said, `That man has given me advice every day, all of it bad.' Their personalities were different. Coo--Harding--I meant Hoover spent a great deal of his time out of the country before he became a member of the Cabinet. He was an engineer, an international businessman, and Coolidge was none of these things. So they were quite different. But when Coolidge became president, he said, `My--my job is to carry out the mandate given to Warren Harding,' and he wanted to keep the entire Harding Cabinet, and which he--he did.
LAMB: In the time that Calvin Coolidge was president, the market did what?
SOBEL: Went up, very, very strong. There were--there were--there were dips here and there, of course, but it was a very strong stock market.
LAMB: And when he left off--when was the crash?
SOBEL: The crash was October of '29.
LAMB: When d--when did he leave office?
SOBEL: March.
LAMB: And so up until that point and during his entire presidency, the economy was good, surplus was good, market good?
SOBEL: Well, no, there were--there were corrections. There were five major corrections during the Coolidge years of--well, of more than 10 percent. And after each one, the market recovered and went up again; always up, down, up, down, up to new highs.
LAMB: Why did it crash?
SOBEL: That's a question that historians have been debating for a long time, and with no clear answer. One reason is a--quite a familiar one, is that the market was very high by historic standards. The second was that the market in those days did not have the built-in stabilizers that we have today. There were no stabilizers. In those days, the market was considered to be a New York corporation and, therefore, controlled by the New York Legislature and the governor. The president had no role in this. There was a lot of rank speculation, but there'd been rank speculation before, the rank speculation that caused the panic of 1907, 1901, 1893, 1873, 1857 and all the way back. In each case, banks would fail and the market would come back. The difference in 1929 was there were no major bank failures. It didn't look that serious. And, of course, it turned out to be very serious. So the market went down in October and then recovered one-third of the loss by the next spring, and then it went down again and again and again, and it hit bottom in 1933.
LAMB: Is there any similarity to today, to those--that period back then?
SOBEL: You can find similarities, but there are also many differences. The market today is very high by historic standards, and there are all kinds of strange instruments, which people don't really understand. Got a lot of amateur investors, which you had back in 1929 also. But you have the stabilizers, and the stabilizers are very important. And, of course, you can thank--the person we thank for those stabilizers is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who--who brought it into us, and he started the whole thing.
LAMB: Who's your favorite president?
SOBEL: I don't have favorite presidents. I think that Coolidge was appropriate. I think that--that you can't rank presidents. It doesn't make any sense. C--Coolidge said that, by the way, too, and so did JFK. I think Franklin Roosevelt was a great president, too. But you needed greatness in the 1930s and 1940s. You did not need greatness in the 1920s. You needed a person who would let you state--do your own business and stay free, and Coolidge did this. So I--I think that--Franklin Roosevelt, say, for example, put in 1925, I don't know what he would do. And a Coolidge put in the 1930s would be at loss. So this country has been very fortunate in that we've picked the appropriate presidents at the appropriate times. And here are two men, in my case, which I--I both--I admire both of them.
LAMB: You write that, `Many remarked that Coolidge was a clever and astute politician, but he was also a good teacher of morals and ethics.'
LAMB: And then you have a little bit of a speech from him, and he says, `If material rewards be the only measure of success, there is no hope of a peaceful solution of our social questions where they will never be large enough to satisfy.' What kind of materialism was he interested in, and did he have much himself?
SOBEL: No. Well, he was a--he was not a poor man. He inherited from his father. But Coolidge m--made many speeches like this. The most famous speech, I guess, Coolidge is known for is 1925 before the newspaper editors, where he supposedly said, `The business of America is business.' Well, the actual quote is, "The chief business of the American people is business."

The headlines the next day said, `Coolidge calls for more spirituality in American life,' and things like that. They don't mention, `The business of America is business.' Because he goes on to say, `The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. Any newspaper who forgets this will not get very far. And the American people are idealistic people.' And he gives many speeches in which he says that th--`Riches didn't make the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence gave us the freedom to become wealthy.'

Coolidge himself was not a particularly ambitious person when it came to making money for himself, although he did. When he left the White House, he did a lot of writing and made a lot of money.
LAMB: What went wrong during his presidency?
SOBEL: Ooh, in the economy or the country?
LAMB: Just the--the--you know, what's the negative?
SOBEL: The negative for him, I think, is signing the immigration bill, which excluded the Japanese. I thought that was a mistake. I didn't think he had to intervene in Nicaragua. I think that was a mistake, too. I would have been happier if he denounced the Ku Klux Klan by name, but no one was doing this. I mean, Franklin Roosevelt didn't say a word about this. Davis didn't say a--no, Davis did, th--the candidate. I'm sorry. I take that back.
LAMB: There were large rallies in those years.
SOBEL: Yes, very big. The--a person--one of Coolidge's neighbors in 1920, when they were talking about him running for the presidency, said, `Calvin Coolidge would probably make a very good president, but he won't be a very demanding president. He won't be a very exciting president.' And the reason for it is that Calvin Coolidge doesn't take chances. If Calvin Coolidge was a baseball player, he'd hi--he'd hit a lot of singles and he wouldn't strike out very often. But he wouldn't swing for the bleachers. He wouldn't hit many home runs, 'cause if you want to hit a home run, you have to take a chance on striking out.

Mark Sullivan, the great journalist of the time, said, `Coolidge is the kind of person who climbs a ladder rung after rung. He won't take the next rung until his foot is secure on the bottom rung.' This--this is the way he was.
LAMB: Four tax cuts...
LAMB: ...strong economy, budget surpluses and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927.
SOBEL: And Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. And Coolidge had nothing to do with that either.
LAMB: Did he try to take credit for any of it?
LAMB: What's Muscle Shoals?
SOBEL: The Muscle Shoals is a government facility, built during World War I in--in the Tennessee Valley. And after the war was over, there was no need for it. It was surplus property, so the government auctioned it off. And the highest bid came from Henry Ford. And, you know, opposition led by George Norris, senator from Nebraska, who said, `The price is too low,' and the government said, `Well, this is the highest bid we got.' And Ford undertook that if he would be given Muscle Shoals at his price, he would sell nitrates at a lower cost to the farmers; in other words, below market cost. And for that, he was opposed by many nitrate interests, as you can imagine, also. The sale of Muscle Shoals was supported by the American Federation of Labor and an awful lot of groups, but it didn't take place. And later on, of course, it becomes the background for the TVA, Tennessee Valley Administration.
LAMB: How much scandal was there in the Coolidge administration?
SOBEL: There was none, none at all. When the--when the Harding scandal started to break, there were attempts on the part of some Democrats to pin the whole thing on Coolidge, too. And they investigated, but they couldn't find anything. What Coolidge did was let the Congress take care of the investigation, headed by Senator Walsh of Montana, a Democrat, and then when the time came, he named two special prosecutors, one former Democrat senator and one former Republican senator, and he said, `Go ahead and do the work.' Whenever they asked for papers, he provided the papers. And in 1924, after the sca--one year in office, he ran for the presidency as a clean government candidate, so it was quite a change.
LAMB: This is from a New York Times reporter, Ernest Harview, back in the '20s. I'm gonna read it and ask you if anything ever changes in politics. `What becomes of the enormous sums of money raised and disbursed at every recurring election for president of the United States? The sums so contributed amounted to $3 million in 1904, to $5 million in 1908, to $8 million in 1912, and to more than $12 million in 1916. The present presidential campaign is only in its primary stage and already, as testimony before the United States Senate, has grown between $2 million and $3 million, has expanded, though neither party con--convention has yet been held. Is this money being used for bribery and corruption or applied to legitimate campaign purposes. What becomes of it?'
SOBEL: Well, the--the two candidates that received most--most of the money in 1920 were Lowden and Woods. And there was some indication that some money had been given to two Lowden delegates from one state. And they admitted it. The story broke. Senator Bora helped to uncover this story, but very little money was given to Harding or to Coolidge. And Coolidge did not raise much money in '24. He didn't need it. Coolidge ran in 1924, by the way, without making a single political speech, not one. Amazing.
LAMB: How'd he do it?
SOBEL: He put--he dedicated dams, he would talk about Boy Scout things and Mother's Day and, you know, little things like that, but he didn't make political--Coolidge would never mention his opponent's name in a speech, wh--on any level, when he was running for governor.
LAMB: At the end, when he was--had decided that he was gonna retire and not run again, how did that happen?
SOBEL: Well, w--he was at--on a vacation. It was the anniversary of his having become president, and he had his press conference, and he said, `Come back in the afternoon. I'll ta--I'll have more for you.' And when the reporters came back, he gave each one a slip saying, `I do not choose to run for the presidency in 1928.' And, of course, there was a stampede to the telephones, and later on, his host told Grace Coolidge, `Boy, he sure gave us a surprise, didn't he?' And she said, `What are you talking about?' He said, `Well, he decided he's not gonna run for the presidency.' And Grace said, `Oh, my God, he never told me.' And, of course, it created a furor.
LAMB: Do you know what year this picture was taken, where he's standing in front of the White House?
SOBEL: Oh, I think that's late in his presidency.
LAMB: You say in the last chapter of the book that, `Herbert Hoover never consulted him when he was president.'
SOBEL: That's right. That's right.
LAMB: Did that hurt him?
SOBEL: No. `If he wanted my advice, fine. If he didn't want my advice, that's OK, too. I'm not the president anymore. We draw our presidents from the people. It is only right to return to the people.' That's what he said.
LAMB: What did he do in retirement, and how long did he live?
SOBEL: He wrote. He died in January of 1933. He wrote his--his memoirs. He wrote magazine articles. He wr--wrote a newspaper column for about a year. Wa--wasn't very good. He was asked to write a dedication--a 500-word--500-word dedication, the history of the United States in 500 words for the Mt. Rushmore memorial. And...
LAMB: History of the United States in 500 words.
SOBEL: In 500 words. And there's a--a Liberty magazine cartoon showing Coolidge sitting there thinking, and saying, `Calvin Coolidge is asked to write 500-word history of the United States, and he's trying to think up 200 words of padding.'
LAMB: If he were here today, what question would you like to ask him that you couldn't resolve in this book?
SOBEL: Well, I don't think he'd answer my questions. He wouldn't care what I thought of him. He wouldn't care o--overtly about the opinions of people who he didn't know. That's--that's the unusual part of him. That's why I like him so much, because he's his own man. If I had to spend a night at a dinner table with a--a president of the 20th century, it would not be Calvin Coolidge. I wouldn't get enough out of him. I'd pick someone else.
LAMB: What do you plan to do on your retirement?
SOBEL: I'm not retiring. I've just stopped teaching. I'm writing books. My next book is already finished.
LAMB: What's it about?
SOBEL: It's called "Business Blunders: How Businesspeople Can Learn From the Mistakes Made By Others." And I'll do some con--consulting work. I'm with an institute on the West Coast. I'll--I'll be busy.
LAMB: Robert Sobel has been our guest, and he is the author of this book, "Coolidge: An American Enigma." Thank you very much for joining us.
SOBEL: Thank you.
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