By David Pietrusza
Coolidge scholar and key Reagan adviser Peter D. Hannaford died at age 82 at his Eureka, California home on September 5, 2015. His 2001 book, The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: Sensible Words for a New Century, helped set the stage for the current renaissance in Coolidge scholarship and appreciation.
Like so many Coolidge admirers (including Ronald Reagan himself), Hannaford, a San Francisco advertising executive, began his career as a Democrat but by the 1960s emerged as a conservative Republican, serving Reagan’s gubernatorial administration as its public affairs director. In 1972 Hannaford became a candidate himself, challenging incumbent Bay Area congressman Ron Dellums. He lost but ran ten percentage points ahead of President Nixon in California’s Oakland and Berkeley-centered 7th congressional district.
Hannaford went on to play a key role in Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, to assist in keeping Reagan in the public eye through his popular newspaper columns and radio broadcasts, and to help (along with Edward Meese, Lyn Nofziger, and his own advertising agency partner, Michael Deaver), form Reagan’s crucial grassroots advocacy group, “Citizens for the Republic.”
“Some people study history,” wrote his friend Robert Zapesochny in the American Spectator upon Hannaford’s passing, “Peter shaped it. . . . [He] was remarkably humble despite everything he achieved in life. He was one of the most decent and honorable men I ever met.”
Of his relationship with Reagan, Hannaford recalled: “Oh, he was a breeze to work with, just a dream to work with. As we got to know one another well and he knew I would write in his voice, he would just say, ‘Pete, take a crack at this.’ . . . He was always so apologetic when he changed things” [including such notes as] ‘You know, that’s good,’ followed by, ‘but let’s try this.’”
Hannaford’s most recent work was to edit the diaries of the columnist Drew Pearson. Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-1969 had just been released immediately before his passing.
In his 2001 effort, The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: Sensible Words for a New Century, Hannaford noted:
After four books on President Reagan, I wrote about another of his favorite predecessors, George Washington. Upon completing that book, I turned to President Coolidge, who has only recently begun to get the reappraisal he deserves.
There are some strong parallels between Coolidge’s era and ours: great prosperity, general peace in the world, inventiveness, and scientific advances. As I began to review his written and spoken words, I found most of them strikingly applicable to today. His statements about radio and then-fledgling television—with appropriate word changes—would do for our era of VCRs, satellites, and broadband communications. We consider the effects of large political campaign contributions and of globalization to be current issues, but Coolidge was there first, as his quotations on these subjects show. Coolidge believed in—and practiced—lean, direct, clear prose. It is unadorned, thus giving it power. Unlike the poll-driven banalities and hyperbole practiced by many latter-day politicians, Coolidge gives it to us straight.
Hannaford credited our foundation (then “The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation”) for assistance with his efforts, specifically recognizing executive director Cynthia Bittinger, as well Coolidge interpreter Jim Cooke. Said foundation national advisory board member Cal Thomas of The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: “Hannaford cuts through the historical ‘spin’ of some who didn’t like Coolidge and adds to the growing body of work which is allowing the 30th president to speak for himself. The reader will find plain, unadulterated common sense in Coolidge’s words—a rare commodity these days, making Coolidge all the more valuable for our time.”
“We already miss Pete, who inspired so many of us,” said Coolidge biographer and Foundation Chairman Amity Shlaes. “He got the essence of CC.”
Matthew Denhart, the Coolidge Foundation’s executive director, remarked, “Hannaford’s work brought President Coolidge’s voice and wisdom directly to Americans today. We are all indebted to Pete.”
Hannaford dedicated The Quotable Calvin Coolidge to “the memory of Calvin Coolidge: Thirtieth President of the United States of America: ‘a good and kindly man.’”
David Pietrusza is the author of three books on Calvin Coolidge, a member of the CCPF Advisory Board and a former foundation board member. His latest book is 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR: Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny.