April 2000

Historian Emily Rosenberg puts it best early in the Story Edit and preview of Things of the Spirit, the biographical film we are completing on Calvin Coolidge: "You know, Franklin Roosevelt was a tough act to precede, and Coolidge and Hoover have always stood in the shadow of that most charismatic politician." The Kunhardts' treatment of Coolidge in the recent The American President series on PBS edges toward penumbra. But viewers are left in the dark as to the underlying character and political accomplishments of our 30th president.

The Kunhardts tipped their hand with the very first sentence of their 13 minute section on Coolidge: "The chief business of the American people is business." The sentence comes from an address President Coolidge gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which he explored possible conflicts between the commercial and editorial roles of American newspapers. The sentence served as a rhetorical springboard to Coolidge's main point:

The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction... I could not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room, but my ultimate faith I would place in the idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.

In context, Coolidge might be criticized for his idealism. But by quoting only his lesser point, the Kunhardts once again paint Coolidge into the corner created for him by the New Deal historians -- that of a small-minded materialist. For emphasis, the Kunhardts add to their cliché "business" quote an unrelated second sentence (on an unrelated subject) lifted from Coolidge's 1925 inaugural address: "If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction." Case closed.

Describing Coolidge's early years, the Kunhardt script states that:

Calvin Coolidge grew up on the family farm in Vermont, working so hard he was left with little time for himself. He was often lonely, yet feared being alone.

However, in the Story Edit and preview of Things of the Spirit, historian Michael Platt tells us more about Coolidge, using a primary source:

In his Autobiography he stresses the quietude of the lives lived in Plymouth, and indeed of the lives that he saw and learned from. And he even talks about the silences he enjoyed going out horseback riding. He says, for example, "Riding over the fields and along the country roads by myself, where nothing interrupts his seeing and thinking, is a good occupation for a boy. The silences of nature have a discipline all their own." He talks about night -- middle of the night visits to his mother's grave. Now in Plymouth his mother's grave is about a quarter mile from his house. He went there often, especially when he was troubled. And that kind of silence, that capacity to be with yourself alone, to think long thoughts, is a strength that comes into all that he said later on.

As to Coolidge's political career in Massachusetts, the Kunhardt script states that Governor Coolidge "forcibly ended" the 1919 Boston police strike. In fact, he simply backed Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis's decision first to suspend, and then to dismiss, striking policemen for affiliating with the American Federation of Labor -- contrary to Department regulations and Massachusetts law. In backing the Commissioner and the rule of law, Coolidge thought he had committed political suicide. The nation thought otherwise.

In describing the 1920 Republican Convention, the Kunhardts state that Coolidge "lost to Warren G. Harding" -- implying that Coolidge actively sought the nomination. But, as Coolidge describes in his Autobiography:

I did not wish to use the office of Governor in an attempt to prosecute a campaign for nomination for some other office. I therefore made a public statement announcing that I was unwilling to appear as a candidate and would not enter my name in any contest at the primaries... I had no national experience. What I have ever been able to do has been the result of first learning how to do it. I am not gifted with intuition. I need not only hard work but experience to be ready to solve problems.

I was surprised how carelessly the Kunhardts use archival material. They repeatedly show footage of Coolidge as Governor, or in retirement, when purporting to show him as President. Similar historical indiscretions take place with Grace Coolidge as First Lady. Perhaps most absurd is their use of a photograph of teenage Calvin, Jr., taken shortly before he died, to depict the President in his youth.

More damaging is showing photographs of the 1925 Ku Klux Klan march in Washington while asserting Coolidge's "refusal to work on behalf of Black Americans and their civil rights." Things of the Spirit uses more dramatic motion picture footage of that event while establishing just the opposite. Unlike President Wilson before, and Franklin Roosevelt later, Coolidge repeatedly urged Congress to enact federal anti-lynching laws. Congress never responded. Coolidge's own response to the 1925 Klan march in Washington was bold and courageous. It is described in "Toleration and Liberalism," an episode contained in both the Story Edit and preview of Things of the Spirit.

Kunhardt commentator Richard Neustadt then says of Coolidge:

A real farm depression developed in his time. He did nothing about it.

In fact, a domestic farm crisis spanned the entire interwar period, commanding the attention of four American presidents. Coolidge labored over the farm problem. At great political risk he twice vetoed the highly complex and ill-conceived McNary-Haugen legislation. "Farm Subsidies," a major episode in Things of the Spirit, tells the story of this politically defining issue and the solution Coolidge chose to pursue.

In similar style, the Kunhardt script declares:

Though signs of mounting danger in the stock market were evident by the late 1920's, Coolidge did nothing to avert a looming financial crisis. Instead, at the last moment, he announced his decision not to seek a second full term. 

A deeper look at the causes of the crash and depression is offered in Things of the Spirit by historians George Nash and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; economists Christina Romer, Lawrence Reed and John Kenneth Galbraith; and former Secretary of Treasury Douglas Dillon. As to Coolidge's "last moment" decision not to run, his early announcement in August 1927 is entertainingly described in the Story Edit and preview of Things of the Spirit.

At the close of their Coolidge segment, the Kunhardts tell us:

As the Coolidge Prosperity went out the window, the preacher of the American way had little left to say.

Far from it. Shortly after leaving the White House in 1929, Coolidge's Autobiography appeared serially in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later as a book. In addition to occasional articles, Coolidge undertook a short syndicated column, six days a week. It appeared in almost 100 newspapers across the country for a year. Although the former president did not seek to intervene in national policy, his views were well known to the American people during his remaining four years following the White House. Coolidge died in January 1933, at the age of 60.

Finally, in their transition between Presidents Wilson and Bush, the Kunhardts maintain that:

Wilson's administration was followed by two decades of isolation until Franklin Roosevelt led the country back onto the world stage during World War II -- turning America into the world's leading power.

Not so. As historians Warren Cohen, Joan Hoff, Emily Rosenberg and Melvyn Leffler inform us in Things of the Spirit, the 1920's was a decade of immense diplomatic, economic and cultural expansion for America. Coolidge's foreign policy with respect to Mexico, China and Nicaragua; his handling of Allied war debt and German reparation issues; and the diplomacy of arms limitation, peace and international trade are examined in the episode "Spreading the American Dream." As Warren Cohen puts it: "Nothing of any importance happened in the 1920's without the involvement of the United States."

The treatment of Coolidge in The American President confirms once again the need to bring Things of the Spirit to American viewers. Since completing the Story Edit in 1997, recent years have again been devoted to fundraising. As tax deductible gifts and grants are received, they currently are applied to acquiring, restoring and remastering the archival film scenes needed to illustrate our stories. We welcome leads to individuals and organizations interested in contributing.

John Karol, Producer
Persistence Plus Productions
Main Street
Orford, New Hampshire 03777

Tel: . (603) 353-9067
Fax: (603) 353-4646