On hearing the news that Calvin Coolidge had just died, the humorist Dorothy Parker, whose wit could be pitiless, asked in mock surprise, “How could they tell?” Old Silent Cal, 30th President of the United States—the Sphinx of the Potomac, Washington insiders called him—had passed on. And nobody noticed.
Remind you of anyone today? The current occupant of the White House perhaps? Who may well be dead, too, but how can we tell? How can anyone tell? Leaving aside his handlers, media shills and sycophants who’ve been frantically propping him up for years, most of us simply can’t be sure. But those in the know are certainly aware of the hollow shell they’ve kept on life support since before the election of 2020—going all the way back to the Biden basement where this whole charade began.
How completely unlike Calvin Coolidge, who, for all that he didn’t do during the years he spent running the country, managed nevertheless to do it brilliantly. In fact, he was such a blooming genius at it that Walter Lippmann, who rejected most of his politics, was so impressed by his “active inactivity” that he could see at once how it perfectly suited “the mood of the country.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It really wasn’t, you see, so much a matter of what he did or didn’t do as who he was that did it. Alfred E. Smith, an admiring member of the opposition who very nearly became president himself, said of Coolidge that what distinguished him was “character more than heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history…in a time of extravagance and waste.”
Character. It is what enables a man to stand tall in the saddle, to make choices that are the result of a life long-habituated to the practice of virtue. It is what gives voters confidence in the leaders we elect, knowing that, as Plato put it, here is someone who actually does not covet the job we’ve given him. Allow only those who disdain the exercise, Plato taught, to lord it over the rest of us. When getting and keeping power becomes the consuming passion, it’s time for voters to pull the plug, lest the office holder be tempted to tyrannize over others.
How we’ve come to miss that quality among the moral pygmies who govern us now, their lust for full control of our lives having turned them into addicts. Not since Coolidge, it seems, the quality of whose character impressed even his political opponents, have we moved so far from Sphinx to Jinx. Which pretty much describes the arc of our nation’s current decline and fall. And we’ll not need the resources of an Edward Gibbon to tell the tale.
Just check out any Presidential Q&A to get a full and proper sense of the disaster we’ve got on our hands—Biden’s latest lapse being the deceased congresswoman whose name he repeatedly called out from the podium. “Jackie, you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden asked as he haplessly scanned the crowd for signs of Rep. Jackie Walorski, who had perished more than a month ago in a car crash. “She must not be here,” he concluded forlornly.
This is pure bathos, for which there are no comparisons to be found this side of Monty Python. And for this we’re not permitted even to consider invoking Article Twenty-Four of the U.S. Constitution, which provides for emergency removal of a president when circumstances indicate he’s incapacitated? Or is it only Donald Trump we’re allowed to accuse of being off his rocker?
If the unfolding lunacy we see day after day coming out of Washington doesn’t lead to a red wave in November, then the whole country has gone crackers. We might as well all be pod people sleepwalking our way into the dustbin of history. Because we haven’t got a future as a country. In fact, we won’t even have a country, or at least not one any of us would care to recognize as our own. Is it possible that we’re all brain-dead? That we’ve fallen into a black hole, only we don’t yet know it? Who will tell us?
One of the funniest stories told about Coolidge comes from a White House supper in which an intrepid young lady sought to engage him in conversation, announcing that she could tease out at least three words. “You lose,” he told her without looking up from his plate.
There are no such stories to be told about Biden because there is no longer anything funny to be said about him. Meanwhile, the ongoing challenge is to get him to stop talking at all, so painfully disjointed from reality has his speech become. In fact, it is more than just painful to watch. It is downright frightening, especially when his speech hurtles us ever closer to war with Russia, for which there are no words to describe, much less prevent, the ensuing nuclear fallout.
We are living in very dangerous times. But even as the polls more and more move in the direction of a sobering national recognition of the fact, it still may not be enough to change the outcome. There may be no red wave coming our way in November at all. And even if there were, what assurance have we that the Republicans are really up to speed, that there’s enough character to go around to save the Republic?
“A nation to be loved,” said Edmund Burke, “must be lovely.” Maybe we’re just not lovely enough anymore. But it’s the only nation we’ve got. So, if we’ve any interest in keeping what’s lovely, we’d better get busy and defend it. By voting. Not early and often, as they used to say in Chicago, but at least once. And be sure and get a neighbor or two to join you. It was the same Burke, after all, who said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
[Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images]