The President Who Loved to Beam: “Smiling Cal” Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge.

Calvin Coolidge.

“He looks as if he’s been weaned on a sour pickle.”

Alice Longworth.

Alice Longworth.

It was one of the most aptly memorable and highly quotable quips ever used to describe a President of the United States, attributed to no less than the daughter of another President of the United States.

In truth, however, the sharp-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt did not originate the remark but rather attributed the quote to her dentist.  Although Alice Longworth did give it a currency in the nation’s capital that soon went viral, she did add that she wished she’d invented it.

A painting later made depicting Coolidge repeating the presidential oath of office, administered by his father, a justice of the peace at their Vermont country home in August of 1923.

A painting later made depicting Coolidge repeating the presidential oath of office, administered by his father, a justice of the peace at their Vermont country home in August of 1923.

Perhaps, however, it was a bit of a quick rush to judgement on the native Vermont farmer and former governor of Massachusetts who, as Vice President of the United States, assumed the office of president upon the sudden death of President Warren Harding in 1923.

Certainly, Coolidge himself may have unwittingly contributed to the persona he cast with his famous he soon assumed in the national Pop Culture of the Jazz Age. He was indeed a man who chose to say what he felt was necessary in as few words as possible and then do so with rather cryptic yet sensible abstraction.

“The business of America,” he most famously affirmed, “is business.”

Coolidge speaking.

Coolidge speaking.

Apart from his artful poetry of politics, President Coolidge was strictly old-school when it came to maintaining the dignity of the presidency, cautious always to watch his words and deeds in a way that never compromised the way the nation perceived the symbolism of that position.

Few also realized that as a human being, Calvin Coolidge never lost what was an almost crippling shyness around strangers. It was a factor which led him to depend on his effervescently extroverted wife Grace Coolidge when he found himself engulfed in social situations.

And yet, he had a crack sense of humor, famous for pulling off all sorts of practical jokes and delivering his observations on the vagaries of humanity with a dry wit and poker-face. He enjoyed nothing more than making those he trusted and loved laugh.

The familiar sour pickle caricatured Coolidge.

The familiar sour pickle caricatured Coolidge.

When one also comes to view hundreds and hundreds of still pictures of him as President, he also seems to betray the persona thrust upon him as the humorless “Silent Cal.” In fact, one senses that Calvin Coolidge secretly derived great pleasure in beaming a broad smile, if not even in laughing.

Among some of the few chosen below, it is also easy to catch him attempting to suppress a natural instinct to smile.

Certainly, in the realm of presidential history revisionism, there is no logical reason for preventing “Silent Cal” from also coming to be known as “Smiling Cal.”

The President's good morning smile and a tip of the hat.

The President’s good morning smile and a tip of the hat.

Grace Coolidge stands next to legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, behind his mother and President Coolidge.

In Washington, it’s the hero of the day, aviator Charles Lindbergh who’s unsmiling – not President Cal.

Enjoying a motor ride.

Enjoying a motor ride with his wife and son outside of Boston.

Coolidge and Thomas Lee, Mississippi River hero, shaking hands, May 28th 1925.

Coolidge and Thomas Lee, Mississippi River hero, shaking hands, May 28th 1925.

Coolidge has a shy laugh with newsmen after his first press conference.

Coolidge has a shy laugh with newsmen after his first press conference.

"Smiling Cal." President Coolidge and his wife in Chicago, 1924. (Chicago Tribune)

“Smiling Cal.” President Coolidge and his wife in Chicago, 1924. (Chicago Tribune)

Coolidge standing with members of the American Association of University Women

Coolidge standing with members of the American Association of University Women

Very happy at a ballgame.

Very happy at a ballgame.

An unknown event, but at least Cal's happy.

An unknown event, but at least Cal is happy.

Out in South Dakota, summer of '27, President Cal in his spiffy cowboy duds.

Out in South Dakota, summer of ’27, President Cal in his spiffy cowboy duds.

Calvin Coolidge's A big "Hullo!" for the Easter Egg Roll kiddies, 1927.

Calvin Coolidge’s A big “Hullo!” for the Easter Egg Roll kiddies, 1927.

"Welcome home!" President Coolidge greets Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the White House in September of 1924.

“Welcome home!” President Coolidge greets Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the White House in September of 1924.

Glancing down with a smile, President Coolidge welcomes Labor Union leaders to the White House, September 1,1924.

Glancing down with a smile, Coolidge welcomes Labor Union leaders to the White House, September 1, 1924.

Coolidge greeted a voter from the back of his train on his return trip to Washington from his son's burial.

Coolidge greeted a voter from the back of his train,

Well, alright. He's not quite silent, no quite smiling. Here's Quizzical Cal.

Well, alright. He’s not quite silent, no quite smiling. Here’s Quizzical Cal.

Of course, a photograph is simply a snapshot of a second in a person’s life and it is often extremely misleading if used as a gauge to accurately assess what an individual is truly thinking and feeling.

President Coolidge trap-shooting.

President Coolidge trap-shooting.

While that holds for all humans, it becomes an even more unreliable standard against which one might fairly judge those like Presidents. Just like everyone else, they are conscious of being photographed and hold a pose or make a facial gesture for it. In recognizing, however, just how much others will seek to draw conclusions about them from a picture, Presidents rarely let their public mask slip, striving to maintain the image of themselves they intend to impress into the national imagination.

If Coolidge has often been judged too harshly based on his sour expressions in pictures, one might also be cautious in depicting him as downright slaphappy from those above.

Some biographers suggest that, in fact, Coolidge suffered from a lifelong mood disorder known as Dysthymia, a mild, often barely perceptible but constant and long-lasting depression.

With a sad honesty that emerged even in her word-play description of her husband’s famous silence, even Grace Coolidge conceded, ““I thought I would get him to enjoy life and have fun but he was not very easy to instruct in that way.”

Calvin Coolidge welcomed Jolson to the White House, along with a contingency  of performers promoting his 1924 presidential campaign.

Calvin Coolidge smiling at a public ceremony two months after his son’s death.

The roots of this may begin in his childhood, when the deaths his mother and only sibling, a sister, proved to be so traumatic he never entirely recovered from the emotional loss it caused.

Eleven months after he became President, his 16 year old son Calvin Coolidge, Jr. died suddenly of blood poisoning contracted from an infected blister on his foot which he developed while playing tennis on a White House court and wearing sneakers without socks.

Still, at the very least, the set of Smiling Cal images above, along with hundreds of others showing him with a beaming grin, do serve to more fully personalize him.

Perhaps because of the human need to demonize or worship public leaders like Presidents and categorize them into neat little lists it is easy to believe they really are all great or all evil, perpetually optimistic or hopelessly pessimistic, focused just on the small picture of the moment or utterly fixated on the large, vague future.

In truth, it is perhaps even more important when analyzing Presidents to never forget that not any one of them has been a one-dimensional caricature.

Even if that’s what they want their pictures to suggest.

President Coolidge defers to his dog, letting Rob dance with his wife.

President Coolidge defers to his dog, letting Rob dance with his wife.


Categories: Calvin Coolidge, History, The Coolidges

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8 replies »

  1. love this!
    i don;t think I have ever seen so many pictures of President Collidge smiling…where do you find all these great photos?
    His real blessing was indeed his wife and he so adored her. Terrible tragedy they had to endure when they lost their son.
    anyhoo-wonderfull article as always. I love thsi blog!

    Regards from NYC-
    Richard Klein

  2. Dear Carl,
    I must hasten to observe that President Coolidge never said nor believed that “the business of America is business”. As is the case with so much misinformation and misquotation we are indebted to the Sage of Emporia – William Allen White and his “A Puritan in Babylon” for the bogus quotation.
    What Coolidge said was: “The chief business of the American people is business.”

    Now, I’ll go back and finish reading what looks to be a most excellent post on “Silent Cal” –

    • Thanks for that clarification Jim. Interesting – yes so many of the great quotes that have come down to us were actually popularized in a more cryptic form or didn’t originate with those credited with first saying it – just like the Alice Longworth remark. I’ve got a forthcoming look at Mae West’s political impact and so many of the famous lines attributed to her are also reductions by the public of what she actually said.

  3. Speaking of Alice Roosevelt’s dentist – For some procedure Miss Alice Blue Gown was given cocaine – She later wrote: “Now there is a drug I could learn to like.

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