Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“A Puritan in Babylon”

Jesse Halsey's review of A Puritan in Babylon, The Story of Calvin Coolidge, by William Allen White, The Macmilliam Company, 1938

A best seller surely, “definitive” likely.

The Kansas editor looks at the Yankee politician and with shrewd observations, keen appraisals, and dogged persistence tracks his subject (neither victim nor hero) through the decades.

Some college prank involving the revolutions of a pot-bellied stove down a dormitory stairway; young Coolidge questioned disclaims responsibility—“It wasn’t my stove.” True to form he meets the successive emergencies of life from there on to the oil scandals—“not my stove.”

“Money honest” refusing lucrative positions, unsmirched by any suspicion of ever having been bought, he “avoided the big problems” (as he said to Will Rogers) and so “became an attitude rather than an executive” (so says Mr. White). On the verge of economic earthquake—“a time of momentous decision”—“yet the President apparently knew nothing of it. Certainly did nothing about it.”

“A man who has been President is not free—“ no business offer (there were plenty) allured him after his term. He died a poor man, earning every penny—and making it “work.”

Praise there is—but “faint praise” that often amounts to damnation. Fair is the author and painstaking. He is faithful to his thesis equaling Gamaliel Bradford, but hipped on no psycho-analytical procedure. His sources are many of the personal—sometimes it seems as if it hurt him as a friend to tell all the truth, but he does tell it.

Coolidge was shy and taciturn, often impolite and boorish. White charges it up to the repression of a Puritan background, his mother’s death, and (later) to his boy’s. “Plymouth never entirely died out of his heart. Inside him that little boy—sentimental, mischievous sometimes inconsiderate and cruel—never grew up.”

New Hampshire’s governor stood by Gov. Coolidge for five hours during a parade when the rainbow division came home after the war and Coolidge spoke to him just once in the five hours! At a White House weekend when the Whites and a few intimate friends were present, the President was almost dumb except one night when sitting next to Mrs. White he talked at length quietly to her. It was after his boy had died—the White’s had lost a girl of twelve!

General Edwards under criticism for some war statement met Gov. Coolidge. “Hello, Chatterbox,” ventured the general. “Well, General, I notice what I don’t say gets me in less trouble than what you do say.” “His habit of silent cerebral cogitation make him conspicuous sometimes but never notorious,” so comments the author.

“While I have differed with my subordinates, I have always supported loyally my superiors” . . . “Stated cynically and therefore not entirely truthfully, this means that Calvin Coolidge always knew on which side his bread was buttered.”

There is a lot of gossip here picked up as only a newspaper man can pick. And then deleted and appraised as a good biographer should and as only William Allen White can.

Mr. White has a knowledge of economics, of war-time history, of politics and of American life and middle-class psychology that admirably fit him for his task (at times it seems like his labor of love). He is critical and appreciative; he preached little but hits hard. He reveals an era and a dynasty, now gone forever. We hope his next biography will be on Henry Cabot Lodge. We have a notion he might uncork his vials as he has not in his lives either of Calvin Coolidge or of Woodrow Wilson.

No comments: