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Jack Smith

Expanding on a Man of Few Words

January 21, 1988|Jack Smith

Objecting to my remark that "one searches in vain for the wit of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon," reader John Blumenthal of North Hollywood complains that "Evidently Mr. Smith did not search very far, at least where Coolidge is concerned. Coolidge was actually a master of the deadpan style of comedy and one of our funniest Presidents."

He cites several of the familiar anecdotes illustrating Coolidge's storied wit, including the well-known one about the dinner partner who said to the President, "My husband has bet me that I won't get more than two words out of you all evening." Coolidge said, "You lose."

He also recalls Coolidge's answer when asked what he thought of a soprano's "execution" during a boring White House concert. "I'm all for it," he replied.

Also, the one about the ground breaking at which the President turned a spadeful of earth, and, when told that he was expected to say a few words, said, "Nice fishworms you got here."

Frances Graves Sweeney of Studio City also says one need not search in vain for Cal's wit. She cites one of the practical jokes he seemed to enjoy. When a foreign dignitary was having breakfast with the President, he watched the President's every move, so he could follow suit and avoid a faux pas. Coolidge ostentatiously stirred sugar and cream into his coffee, poured it into the saucer and placed the saucer on the carpet for his cat.

She also recalls what may be the most famous of Coolidge stories. His wife being indisposed, the President went to church alone. On his return she asked him what the sermon was about. "Sin," he answered. "But what did he say about it?" she asked. "He was against it."

According to Paul F. Boller Jr. in "Presidential Anecdotes," both Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge denied this story. Almost all other examples of Coolidge's wit are also anecdotal, and, I suspect, apocryphal.

Where there was so much smoke there might have been some fire, but contemporary historians have not pictured Coolidge as a wit. Samuel Eliot Morison called him mean, thin-lipped, mediocre, parsimonious, dour, unimaginative, abstemious and frugal. H. L. Mencken said, "His chief feat during five years and seven months in office was to sleep more than any other President--to sleep more and say less."

His reputation for wit and taciturnity are hardly borne out by the reams of banalities he turned out for women's magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan at $2 a word, evidently to eke out his meager salary as vice president.

The New York World described Coolidge's writing as "vague to the point of sheer unintelligibility," and the New Republic called it "turgid and platitudinous."

To quiet rumors that Coolidge employed a ghostwriter, the contemporary John Bakeless wrote, "But why should Mr. Coolidge be suspected of using a ghost? Who, if hiring a ghost at all, would choose a ghost that does such ghastly work?"

Coolidge's reputation for wit seems to derive almost entirely from anecdotes to which only the intimate principals could testify. His very taciturnity probably inspired them. His public statements and writings are devoid of humor, unless you count "If you don't say anything, you won't be called on to repeat it."

Actually, I have a good file on Coolidge and have told some of these anecdotes here before. My favorite is the following, from a story in The Times of Dec. 3, 1981, which reveals that it was Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge who inspired the biological term "the Coolidge Effect" by their identically succinct responses to the fact that polygamous animals may be aroused sexually by changing partners.

It is said the President and Mrs. Coolidge were touring a poultry farm in separate groups, hers being ahead of his. Mrs. Coolidge happened to see a rooster at work and asked her guide how many times a day it could perform. "Dozens," he said. "Tell that to the President," the First Lady responded.

Coming along later, the President asked the same question and received the same answer. "Is it always the same hen?" he inquired. No, he was told, it was a different hen each time. "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," the President said.

It was the New Yorker wit Dorothy Parker who wrote his epitaph. Hearing that Silent Cal had died, she said, "How can they tell?"

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