January 18, 2010, 4:00 a.m.
Have Faith in Massachusetts
How Scott Browns campaign evokes memories of Calvin Coolidge.
By Shawn Macomber
Upon learning that Calvin Coolidge had been nominated at the 1920 Republican Convention to run for the vice presidency, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall, sent a pithy wire to the Massachusetts governor: “Please accept my sincere sympathy.”
Ninety years later, political junkies were no doubt inclined to tweet similar condolences to Scott Brown at the outset of his quest to win the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Little was expected of the state senator. Maybe he would get off a few decent zingers at the left-wing behemoth, come to terms with the word “quixotic,” and put on a brave face for the Election Day spanking.
The ensuing Brown surge and shockingly close race has, needless to say, turned conventional wisdom on its head.
Central to the boomlet that coalesced — against all the odds and the wishes of powerful party bosses — into Coolidge’s vice-presidential nomination was the circulation of a speech Coolidge had given in 1914 to the Massachusetts state senate. In that speech, entitled “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” the then-president of the senate stunned a gallery expecting fluff with philosophical musings on the theme, “Self-government means self-support.” Representative democracy, Coolidge said, was the “nearest perfect system that statesmanship has devised,” but nevertheless it had an Achilles’ heel: Its “weakness is the weakness of us imperfect human beings who administer it.”
It isn’t only raving partisans who are saying “Amen!” to that sentiment these days, as evidenced by the strange case of limited-government advocates suddenly finding cause to “have faith in Massachusetts” again, with a veritable ocean of statist water having flowed under the bridge.
It’s true that Brown is no Coolidge, even if simply campaigning as the 41st vote against Obamacare appears to be evidence that he has imbibed the wisdom of the Coolidge aphorisms — e.g., “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones”; “Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law” — now so depressingly apropos.
And, to be fair, there are areas in which Coolidge is no Brown. Even in Coolidge’s Vermont-farm-boy prime, our 30th president’s being crowned America’s Sexiest Man by Cosmo is only slightly less inconceivable than his posing nude for the centerfold announcing the honor. Whereas today’s media describe Brown as the “most attractive Senate candidate since Mitt Romney” and “All American Hunk Daddy,” Coolidge faced pejoratives from political foes (“that midget statesman” — Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation) and friends (“Coolidge is outwardly neither impressive nor expressive, and looking at him therefore is rather wasting time” — New York World) alike, though the latter at least did their best to look to the brighter side of the candidate they'd endorsed: “You might notice that while he is not large-headed, the shape of his skull gives him somewhat more than average brain space.”
Then again, Coolidge wasn’t yet Coolidge when he delivered “Have Faith in Massachusetts” — he was considered, if not strictly a progressive, then at least friendly to that brand of Republicanism. Setting aside whatever philosophical and physical differences may exist between Coolidge and Brown, the prospect of a curb on the current messianic presidency arising from the same state that gave us perhaps the last president with any real respect for the constitutional limits of the office is sublimely (if tangentially) satisfying.
“Coolidge,” Gene Healey writes in his indispensable The Cult of the Presidency, “kept things entirely too cool for historians who like presidential drama: he slept too much, didn’t do enough, and didn’t talk enough.”
After a year of endless lecturing and secretive at-all-costs doing, if Scott Brown can induce Barack Obama to cool his heels a bit; if he can help the president avoid what Coolidge described in his autobiography as the “the malady of self-delusion” brought on by existing “in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation” that places those in high office in “grave danger of becoming arrogant or careless” — okay, so that horse has left the White House barn; give the guy a lasso — it would be an achievement worthy of Silent Cal, whatever else Brown might wind up doing.
On the question of how this campaign, already far more successful than any professional campaign hack ever supposed it would be, can be concluded with an actual, rather than moral, victory, Brown’s team could do worse than consult “Have Faith in Massachusetts”:
Expect to be called a stand-patter, but don’t be a stand-patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don’t hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation. We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people. A faith that men desire to do right, that the Commonwealth is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconstructed faith that the final approval of the people is given not to demagogues, slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandising with the clamor of the hour, but to statesmen, ministering to their welfare, representing their deep, silent, abiding convictions.
The concept of giving “administration a chance to catch up with legislation” will not likely be popular in a town at present under the thumb of people who believe far-reaching, transformative legislation should be rammed through against public opinion and “sold” later.
In his superlative biography, Coolidge: An American Enigma, the late Robert Sobel described Coolidge’s winning the 1920 vice-presidential nod “without giving a speech, without being there, without the use of any of the conventional bargaining arrangements,” as “the greatest upset” since William Jennings Bryan swaggered his way to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896 carrying a “Cross of Gold.”
Scott Brown is on the verge of earning himself a similar plaque in the Hall of Great Upsets. Hang it next to that of his fellow Bay Stater Calvin Coolidge, I say. And as the invective and dime-store demagoguery fly his way, Brown should recall one of the most wonderful Coolidge anecdotes, the story of a woman at a White House dinner party who attempted to egg on Cool Cal: “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.”
Savor Coolidge’s response to the taunt, Senator Brown. Steal it if you can: “You lose.”
— Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.