Calvin Coolidge: The Disabled Chief Executive

tags: pardons, Coolidge

Mr. Gilbert is Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and author of The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression (Praeger, 2003).

Scholars often speak of Calvin Coolidge in unflattering terms. He is referred to as "a figurehead president," as having had "no drive," as having been a "do nothing president," as a president "almost totally deficient in powers of leadership," as a "spectator president" and as "lackadaisical."

However, a closer analysis of Coolidge reveals that he is perhaps the most misunderstood chief executive in American history and that his presidency was far more complex and tragic than earlier realized. Despite his image now as a deficient, lackadaisical president, Coolidge had previously been industrious and reliable. As a boy, law student, mayor, state legislator, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, governor and vice president, he impressed others consistently with his diligence, conscientiousness and competence.

When he succeeded Warren Harding in August, 1923, Coolidge moved quickly to take charge. He instituted regular press conferences and was praised widely by reporters for his great knowledge and astuteness. He launched a series of breakfasts and dinners with members of Congress of all political leanings so that he could persuade them to support his programs. Over the objections of the American Legion, he pardoned thirty people who had been convicted and imprisoned during World War I for violating the Sedition Act because he wanted to cultivate members of Congress who supported such a pardon. He convened a White House meeting for all state governors so that he could discuss with them the narcotics, immigration and prohibition laws. He set up a committee to investigate the scandals associated with the Harding administration and then fired Harding's attorney general who was suspected of impropriety.

In foreign policy, he restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, which he described as "our sister republic," and asked Congress to provide funds to settle claims resulting from the 1914 American invasion. In September 1923, he sent the Pacific Fleet to Japan to help provide relief for the earthquake that had killed 130,000 people, acting so quickly that the American ships arrived there even before their Japanese counterparts.

Probably the most notable thing that Coolidge did during his first months in office was to deliver a stunning State of the Union address to Congress in December 1923. He spoke in person to a joint session and made thirty identifiable requests in bold and forthright language. In addition to a tax cut, he asked for such measures as the enactment of environmental legislation, the expansion of health benefits for veterans, the passage of a constitutional amendment limiting child labor, the creation of a separate cabinet department of education and welfare, the expansion of the civil service system, the reorganization of the U.S. foreign service, the creation of a new reforestation policy, the establishment of reformatories for women and young men serving their first prison sentence, the funding of medical courses at Howard University and the establishment of a permanent Court of International Justice.

By the time Congress adjourned in June 1924, many of Coolidge's proposals essentially had been enacted. The Foreign Service was reorganized, taxes were cut, veterans' benefits were expanded, reformatories for women and young men were authorized, an oil slick law was enacted, and a new reforestation policy was established. In his first year, then, Coolidge's legislative record was more then respectable.

In June 1924, Calvin Coolidge was overwhelmingly nominated for president by the Republican Party, the greatest political triumph of his life. Within days, however, his world would crumble. On June 30, Coolidge's two sons, eighteen-year-old John and sixteen-year-old Calvin Jr., played tennis on the south grounds of the White House. Young Calvin had worn sneakers but no socks. A blister developed on one of his toes but he ignored it. When he fell ill on July 2, White House physician Joel Boone discovered red streaks running up the boy's leg. Laboratory tests soon showed that Calvin Jr. was suffering from pathogenic blood poisoning. In less than a week, the boy was dead.

The president was overwhelmed with a deep and enduring grief. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institutes of Health have specified symptoms of a major depressive episode. These include hypersomnia or insomnia, changes in appetite, decreased energy, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts of death, indecisiveness, loss of interest in nearly all activities, complaints of bodily indispositions, increased irritability, spitefulness and suspiciousness, deterioration in work performance. After his son's death, Calvin Coolidge showed signs of all of these symptoms.

He began to sleep as many as fifteen hours out of every twenty-four and ate incessantly, sometimes to the point of abdominal distress. He complained of exhaustion and of feeling much older than his years. He experienced severe guilt feelings, blaming his own ambitions for the boy's death. Even though only fifty-two at the time, he began to refer to his own death, telling his father that soon they would both be reunited in heaven with deceased relatives, including little Calvin. He complained often of feeling ill and of not being able to breathe. His irritability became explosive and he would fly into rages at staff members and secret service agents, often for petty reasons. He engaged in temper tantrums aimed at his wife and embarrassed her with his screaming tirades. He was irritable and mean-spirited toward his surviving son, leading John to complain to his mother that he did not understand how she could possibly put up with the president. He also showed spitefulness and rudeness to staff members and was seen as unpleasant, and selfish. Apparently, Coolidge even became suspicious of his wife, guessing in 1927 that she had become romantically involved with a secret service agent and summarily relieving the agent of his duties as her bodyguard.

More serious was that Coolidge essentially abdicated his presidential responsibilities after his son died. He now shied away from interactions with Congress, made few and generally modest legislative requests and indicated that Congress should determine the legislative agenda for itself because it was closer to the people. His annual messages became leaner and leaner and were not even delivered in person, as in 1923, but now were read to each House by clerks. He withdrew from interactions with his own cabinet, telling cabinet members to handle the affairs of their own departments without help or guidance from him, or he would get new cabinet members.

The lifetime pattern of hard work was abandoned as the president's workday shrank to about four hours. No longer did he have any interest in foreign policy, telling his secretary of state on one occasion that: "I don't know anything about this. You do and you're in charge. You settle the problem and I'll back you up." No longer were his press conferences showcases for an informed and involved leader but instead revealed one who was disinterested and neglectful. For example, in November 1924, when asked a question about Nicaragua where he had sent peace-keeping forces, he responded:

I haven't any great detailed and precise information about Nicaragua. I know that there had been some trouble and it was my impression that we had sent some marines in to guard the delegation and that the difficulty was in relation to a presidential election. As I have heard nothing about it from the State Department for some time, I had taken it for granted that the situation is all cleared up. I think this is the case but I haven't any definite information.

On another occasion, he was asked about agriculture bills being considered in Congress and answered, "I don't know as I can make any particular comment about the rejection of the conference agriculture bills. I don't know enough about the details of those bills to discuss the details with any intelligence."

More ominous, as economic storm clouds were gathering, Coolidge revealed in his press conference remarks a stunning degree of uninterest and ignorance about the rampant stock speculation that was ravaging the economy. When Congress, in 1928, was considering legislation to rein in such speculation, Coolidge told the press: "I have no information relative to proposed legislation about loans on securities. I saw by the press that there was a bill pending in the House or the Senate. I don't know what it is or what its provisions are or what the discussion has been."

Such words have been seen as the sign of an absentee and incompetent president. But in contrast to his earlier political career and even his first year as president, and judged against the other behavior changes that engulfed his life, Coolidge emerges as a disabled president, one suffering from a paralyzing and persistent clinical depression. Clinical depression was little understood in the 1920s but those closest to Coolidge saw a major change in his life after young Calvin died. His wife indicated that the president had "lost his zest for living" after July 7, 1924. His son, John, revealed that "my father was never the same again after my brother died." Coolidge's White House physician described him as showing many signs of "mental disturbance" and of being temperamentally deranged. His secretary told his doctors that the president was definitely showing signs of "mental illness." The chief usher at the White House reported that White House employees who came in contact with the president noticed that he was "highly disturbed."

Coolidge himself explained the change in his presidency perhaps best of all when he wrote in his autobiography that when Calvin Jr. went, "the power and glory of the presidency went with him." In a very real sense, then, when Calvin Coolidge lost his son, the nation lost its president.