Coolidge: An America Enigma
BRIAN LAMB, host: Robert Sobel, why do you call Calvin Coolidge `an
Mr. ROBERT SOBEL (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
LAMB: What was complicated about him?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: He was the 30th president, and he served from 1923 to
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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: That's right. Mrs. Coolidge, John Coolidge and Calvin
Jr., and a smiling Calvin Coolidge.
LAMB: How often did that happen?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: Plymouth Notch in Vermont, near the...
LAMB: You ever been there?
Mr. SOBEL: Yes, I was there just a few days ago.
LAMB: What's there?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
LAMB: Did they make a big thing out of that back in those days?
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: He was.
LAMB: Was he?
Mr. 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
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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: I don't understand. I'm sorry.
LAMB: If you want to research him, where do you find him?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
LAMB: How old was he?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Very good; the outlook was very pleasing.
LAMB: Was there a surplus?
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Five--five-plus, yes.
LAMB: ...how many times did he have a surplus?
Mr. SOBEL: Every year, and he paid off one-third of the national
LAMB: And you say there were 135,000 men under arms and about 95,000
in the Navy at that time?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
LAMB: Also in your book that in--from 1912 to 1926, we had troops in
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What was that about?
Mr. 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
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: What's that about?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
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...
Mr. SOBEL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and we put it on a--on a slide. I want to show it to you
(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...
Mr. SOBEL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...going to state representative...
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: That's about it.
LAMB: What did we miss on that list?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: That's the--a presidential photo.
LAMB: Did he smile much when he became president?
Mr. SOBEL: Yes, and he cracked a lot of jokes.
LAMB: He had, you say, a smaller staff in the White House than he did
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: And you also say in the book that he had just one secretary.
Mr. SOBEL: That's right. And no telephone on his desk. He thought
it was unseemly.
Mr. SOBEL: He thought it was undignified. Presidents should not
make telephone calls from their desks. Besides, people may hear you,
LAMB: How did you get into this whole business of writing books, and
what book is this for you?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: It was called, "The Big Board: A History of the New York
LAMB: What got you interested in doing that and what year was it that
you wrote that first book?
Mr. 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
LAMB: Where were you then?
Mr. SOBEL: Hofstra University. It was Hofstra College back in those
LAMB: Where were you born?
Mr. SOBEL: I was born in the Bronx, in New York.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: And what year did you start teaching, then?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: I just stopped teaching.
LAMB: After 40 years?
Mr. SOBEL: Forty-one years.
LAMB: Go back to that first book. Who did you sell it to?
Mr. 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
LAMB: What are some of the other books you've done?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: The IBM.
LAMB: Do you know why?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: Not many. I publish with the--the--a great many
LAMB: Now this one is with what's known as a conservative press...
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: ...Regnery and Gateway.
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: Or I guess they just call it--yeah, just Regnery.
Mr. SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: Why Regnery?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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...
Mr. SOBEL: I know.
LAMB: ...because of the "Majic Bus." We at this network got a couple
of buses running around the country.
Mr. SOBEL: I know.
LAMB: And he endorses your book.
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Oh, occasionally, yes.
LAMB: And what was the reaction to him by students?
Mr. SOBEL: Most of my students never heard of him.
LAMB: Never heard of him?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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."
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What's the difference?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: Ran in late 1924...
Mr. SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: ...against what candidate?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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
LAMB: Go back to Northampton, Massachusetts. How long was he mayor
Mr. SOBEL: I think it was a year or two, that's all.
LAMB: When did he meet his wife, Grace?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: It sets a bad example, he said.
LAMB: And he lived during the Prohibition period.
Mr. SOBEL: That's right.
LAMB: What was that?
Mr. 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.
LAMB: So it was 15 years of Prohibition?
Mr. 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...
Mr. SOBEL: He...
LAMB: ...of--of Massachusetts?
Mr. 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
LAMB: What was that?--you tell a story and I know you--you have a
footnote on John McCain about...
Mr. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...the ability--well, go ahead, you tell the story.
Mr. 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...
Mr. 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
LAMB: How did he become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: Well, the governor stepped down after two terms...
LAMB: Is it automatic?
Mr. SOBEL: Not automatic. Automatically you get the nomination.
LAMB: Was Massachusetts a Republican state?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
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
LAMB: So he's the governor of the state of Massachusetts for how many
Mr. SOBEL: Two terms.
LAMB: How does he become...
Mr. SOBEL: One-year terms.
LAMB: How does he become vice president of the United States?
Mr. SOBEL: Well, he gets on the ticket with Warren Harding and...
Mr. 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
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
Mr. 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
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
Mr. 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
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: It's in the archives--National Archives. I saw--I've
LAMB: In the speech, he said, `Do the day's work.'
Mr. 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...
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: ...I wanted those who had never read him to hear that. Do you
think he wrote that himself?
Mr. 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'?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: ...and his--Grace Coolidge on his right. What was the
relationship between Hoover and Coolidge?
Mr. 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
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: The crash was October of '29.
LAMB: When d--when did he leave office?
Mr. SOBEL: March.
LAMB: And so up until that point and during his entire presidency,
the economy was good, surplus was good, market good?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: Ooh, in the economy or the country?
LAMB: Just the--the--you know, what's the negative?
Mr. 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.
Mr. 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...
Mr. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: ...strong economy, budget surpluses and Babe Ruth hit 60 home
runs in 1927.
Mr. 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?
Mr. SOBEL: No.
LAMB: What's Muscle Shoals?
Mr. 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
LAMB: How much scandal was there in the Coolidge administration?
Mr. 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?'
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. 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 wa<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)