Jim Ottaway, Jr. Remarks
New England Newspaper Association Meeting
Friday, October, 1998
I am not trying to impersonate Calvin Coolidge as Jim Cooke did so well after dinner last night. Nor do I pose as an expert in his life and work as President of the United States.
But my wife, Mary, and I are neighbors of Calvin Coolidge and his descendants in nearby Plymouth Notch, Vermont, vacationers and future retirees, “Vermonters by conviction” to meet John Mitchell’s second class citizen standard. (R. John Mitchell is president and publisher of the Rutland, Vermont, Herald and president of NENA.)
We are meeting about 12 miles from Plymouth Notch, where Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President was born, sworn in as President after Warren Harding died in office in the summer of 1923, and where he lies buried with his wife, Grace; son, Calvin Jr., who died of blood poisoning while his father was President; and with both his parents. So I thought it might be interesting for you to hear parts of an often misunderstood speech Coolidge gave to the American society of Newspaper Editors in 1925. We New England publishers should know more about it.
I have been interested in Calvin Coolidge since 1972 when my wife, Mary, and I bought the oldest farmhouse in Plymouth Notch, a quarter of a mile down the dirt road from the little village cemetery where Calvin Coolidge is buried and celebrated every Fourth of July – his patriotic birthday – with a small parade from the Plymouth Notch Post Office and Coolidge family home to the Cemetery. Parade Magazine once published a photograph of Coolidge fishing in the pond in front of our farmhouse. His surviving son, John, now 92, still comes to the annual Fourth of July parade for his father’s birthday. (He died in May, 2000).
It is also appropriate to speak about Calvin Coolidge on the 75th anniversary of his becoming President of the United States unexpectedly in the summer of 1923. A special conference last July at the John F. Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, examined the evidence behind some of the myths that persist about Calvin Coolidge – many of them false , as you can see from Jim Cooke’s convincing recreation of Coolidge last night.
The purpose of that conference was to ask why “for more than half a century, at nearly all levels of American historical scholarship and education, Calvin Coolidge has been characterized as a complacent, lazy, and humorless man, and an extreme reactionary- hostile to government and progressive legislation, oblivious to the needs of working Americans, and devoted only to the material wealth of the nation, and the interests of business.”
In his conference keynote address, Richard Norton Smith, historian and director of the Gerald Ford Library, said that “in today’s climate of political fakery, Coolidge deserves reappraisal for his character as well as his ideas.”
In our time, when presidents think they can get away with any dishonesty in their personal or public lives, it is refreshing to read Calvin Coolidge’s modest and honest statement:
“It is a great advantage to a president, and major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”
In another comment cited by Richard Smith, Coolidge showed his wonderful dry wit and his basic philosophy of controlling government spending, when he was pushed to increase the military aviation budget:
“Why can’t we just buy one airplane and have all the pilots take turns?”
Contrary to the myth of his conservative stinginess, in his first message to Congress in December 1923, he proposed what was progressive legislation for his time – a federal anti-lynching law; a minimum wage for female workers; a constitutional amendment to prohibit child labor.
Summing up Calvin Coolidge’s term as president, Richard Norton Smith told the Kennedy Library conference this summer:
“Voters admired the president who restored public confidence in the White House after the scandal-plagued Harding administration, who slashed the war-time debt by one-third, and who dramatically reduced the tax burden on low-income workers most of all. By the time Coolidge left office in 1928, 98% of Americans paid no income taxes at all.”
This is a man I would support for president, if he were running today! One good reason for my vote and my editorial endorsement would be his unique understanding and articulate public statement of what he called the practical idealism of American newspapers. By that he meant the idealism of our editorial purpose of bringing news and understanding of public issues to our readers, and the practical purpose of selling space to retail advertisers and commercial information that makes our local economies work to our readers.
Calvin Coolidge made this articulate statement, in a lot more than a few words, in a speech he gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on January 17, 1925, soon after being elected president on his own in November 1924.
If you will pardon a digression, this reminds me of the “two words” joke about Calvin Coolidge: An elegant lady of Washington was invited to the White House and told that she would be seated next to President Coolidge. She bet a friend that she could get him to say more than two words. When she sat down next to the president and told him, unwisely, of her bet, he replied: “You lose.”
He said a great deal more in his 1925 speech to American editors. I will quote you at some length important excerpts, including one of his most famous, often-quoted and criticized comments, which I will put in proper contexts, like a good reporter going to the original source.
On his point about the double purpose of American newspapers with their practical idealism, President Coolidge told the ASNE:
“Our American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to their readers, and at the same time they play a most important part in connection with the business interests of the community, both through their news and advertising departments. Probably there is no rule of your profession to which you gentlemen are more devoted than that which prescribes that the editorial and the business policies of the paper are to be conducted by strictly separate departments. Editorial policy and news policy must not be influenced by business consideration; business policies must be be affected by editorial programs.”
That is a very good statement of what all of us believe, or should believe and practice in our newspapers today.
Later he talked about the practical purpose of newspapers, their commercial interests, their ownership and public service responsibilities:
“Some people feel concerned about the commercialism of the press. They note that great newspapers are great business enterprises earning large profits and controlled by men of wealth. So they fear that in such control of the press may tend to support the private interests of those who own the papers, rather than the general interest of the whole people. It seems to me, however, that the rest test is not whether the newspapers are controlled by men of wealth, but whether they are sincerely trying to serve the public interests. There will be little occasion for worry about who owns a newspaper, so long as its attitudes on public questions are such as to promote the general welfare. A press which is actuated by the purpose of genuine usefulness to the public interest can never be too strong financially, so long as its strength is used for the support of popular government.
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side of purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side of a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probably that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of the people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:
‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.’
Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character, and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.
Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news, It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth.”
So there is little cause for the fear that our journalism, merely because it is prosperous, is likely to betray us. But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness.”
Towards the end of this fascinating speech, President Coolidge speaks eloquently of idealism as a much more important part of the American character and American newspapers than our drive for commercial success and the accumulation of wealth.
After saying, “The power of the spirit always prevails over the power of the flesh,” Coolidge ended his ASNE talk with these remarkably positive comments about American newspapers and the American people:
“American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people. Therefore, I feel secure in saying that they are the best newspapers in the world. I believe that ehy print more real news and more reliable and characteristic news than any other newspapers. I believe that their editorial opinions are less colored in influence by mere partisanship or selfish interest, than are those of any other country. Moreover, I believe that our American press is more independent, more reliable and less partisan today than that at any other time in its history. It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of that the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life. I could not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room, but my ultimate faith I would place in the high idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.”
Is this Silent Cal?
Is this the man so often criticized for supporting only business as “the chief business of the American people?”
Why is his statement that “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism” not remembered just as often?
In our journalistic search for the truth, we should work like scholars, like historians who search for original sources of information, and put important quotes in proper context.
This is what Calvin Coolidge actually said. I recommend the full text to you, your editors, and your editorial writers for use on this 75th anniversary of the inauguration of the only U.S. President from Vermont, a truly honest and good man in the White House, who understood newspaper editing and reporting remarkably well.
In our conservative era, when a New Democratic President Bill Clinton won votes by calling for a smaller federal budget, and applause for the first balanced budget in 30 years, the conservative instincts of Calvin Coolidge are being rediscovered with new appreciation.
The Wall Street Journal ran a top of the editorial page feature by Richard Norton Smith on August 3 headed “The Underestimated President.” On June 16, we ran a review of the latest biography of Calvin Coolidge by Robert Sobel titled Coolidge: An American Enigma.
Only July 31, USA Today led its national news feature page with the headline: “75 Years Later, History More Kind to Coolidge” with a drop head which said: “On the anniversary of his taking office, historians point out that the ‘man who didn’t do anything’ didn’t fit the caricature.”
It is clear that Calvin Coolidge was very much interested in the journalistic search for truth. He was once offered a job as an editor! (Marily Wilson of Concord, NH, told me that her great uncle, Arthur Ryan, general manager of the Holyoke Transcript, fished and talked with Coolidge regularly.)
Lee Dirks, former newspaper reporter and editor, now an honest broker of newspaper sales and purchases, who is also a student of all the presidents of the United States, told me that Frederick Bonfils, owner and publisher of the Denver Post, sent a written offer the President Coolidge as he was leaving office in early 1929 to be editor-in-chief of the Denver Post for $75,000 a year – a very high salary in 1929! That story is reported in “Timber Line,” a book published in 1933 by Gene Fowler about newspaper battles in Denver.
Coolidge turned down that remarkable job offer, went back to Massachusetts and Vermont, to practice law and enjoy his beloved Vermont farmland for only four years until his death in 1933 at 61. But he certainly respected and understood the vital role of a free press in a democracy, and spoke about in in more articulate detail than any other president I know.
I will end by quoting the beginning of Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors which he wrote himself, as Jim Cooke told us last night that he wrote all speeches and had no press secretary. It was titled: “The Press Under a Free Government.”
“The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control.”
Wherever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of freedom of the press. It has always been realized… that truth and freedom are inseparable.”
Calvin Coolidge may be too much of an idealist when he talks about the performance of American newspapers. But he certainly calls us to live up to our highest standards of accurate and objective news reporting and public service, and to keep our news reporting and opinions separate from our advertising and business interest.