He came back – with another song. This time, however, when the legendary screen and stage actor, Al Jolson first performed the official campaign song of a Republican presidential campaign, he didn’t have to march the streets of small-town Oho and do it all from the front porch of a candidate (Warren Harding in 1920).
This time, he was invited with another crew of Broadway and Hollywood stars and producers to breakfast at the White House at the invitation of the incumbent President, Calvin Coolidge – perhaps the most overt use of the White House for a partisan campaign.
Jolson and Coolidge then led the crowd down the South Lawn a bit where he unveiled his new song, Keep Coolidge and Keep Coolidge.
Unusually popular for a campaign song, its success may have had to do with the fact that, unlike his somewhat flat song for Harding, (Harding You’re the Man for Us!!), Jolson only performed “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” The song was part of a professional advertising campaign where the slogan had already been established on posters, pins and a rudimentary form of the automobile bumper sticker. But the song was written by Bruce Harper and Ida Cheever Goodwin – not Al Jolson.
And, perhaps in line with the new type of sleek campaign theme packaging, the President himself was not necessarily as cool as his song suggested. He was calm, collected but, in fact, extremely contemplative.
The economy was thriving, he was entirely divorced from the ongoing investigations of the scandals resulting from the Harding Administration, of which he’d been Vice President, and he was just then at the pinnacle of his acclaim, being nominated for his own full term. Coolidge managed a smile for the cameras as he stood with Jolson, but hearing the song in that particular place on the lawn had likely distracted his thoughts. The clue to what was really going on with him was revealed by the black band he was wearing on arm.
He was running against a lackluster former Democratic congressman from West Virginia, John W. Davis. Even Davis supported Coolidge’s call for tax cuts and reducing the role of government. He predictably won only in the then-s0lidly-Democatic southern states. The candidacy of Robert La Follette, running on the third party Progressive Party ticket, only cost Coolidge the state of Oklahoma. The high employment, growing wealth of the nation, increase in higher education all seemed the incumbent President as a guaranteed winner. Even though, at times, it seemed liked he could take it or leave it. And, perhaps it may have played only a minor role at the polls, but the election of this President who was known to have Native American ancestry, also marked the first national election in which all Native Americans were given the right to vote.
Yet the truth was, in fact, that some of the famous “cool” on “Coolidge” was almost certainly depression, a result of one of the greatest traumas any parent can face – the death of a child.
For Calvin Coolidge that loss had come at the beginning of the campaign summer, in July of 1924.
Only 16 years old, Calvin Coolidge, Jr. had a wry wit and easy smile. He was extremely close to his older brother John, and adored by his parents, his grandfather John Coolidge, and his grandmother Lemira Barrett, mother of the First Lady.
He was spending his first summer as as “First Son” at the White House, his father having become President in the summer of 1923 when President Harding had suddenly died. He and his brother were home from boarding school in Pennsylvania and playing tennis at the courts on the South Lawn, located just to the immediate west of the greensward mound where two months later Jolson led the singing of the campaign song. Playing tennis without wearing socks, he developed a blister.
The blister broke and become infected. Then, the First Son’s blood became infected. And within days of his smiling presence on the lawn, the gangly, otherwise healthy teenager died in the presence of his parents. He was taken with shocking speed and the nation poured its sympathy out to the President and First Lady. However much that sympathy might have also contributed to votes for Coolidge, it was surely the kind of support the President could never have imagined or hoped for.
Certainly for the rest of not only his tenure as President but the rest of his life, Calvin Coolidge never entirely recovered his sense of hope about his own future, later writing that the “glory” of the presidency had left him the moment he lost his Cal. Against this background, the hope the nation felt for its future while whistling Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge carried a tune of bittersweet irony.
In any event, here it is:
There is, nonetheless, an upbeat postscript to the story of Keep Cool with Coolidge. In the grand ole’ American tradition of remaking bigger and better what was once was simpler and smaller, some forty-five years after President Coolidge’s popular campaign song helped keep him in the White House from 1925 to 1929, it was put on a Sixties acid trip for color TV. This version reflected the latter era’s emulation of the former era, a stylization most evident in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The Coolidge campaign lyrics and tempo were retooled for the 50s Broadway stage play, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, but was broadcast a decade later in a performance by Tony Randall, Kathy Gale and Lorene Yarnell (later famous as part of the mime team of Shields & Yarnell). The 1960s version of the 1920s had the two women dancers as seemingly live Betty Boop dolls in skirts short enough to have gotten them arrested forty-five years earlier – and going at a manic version of the Charleston that suggests more than bathtub gin was at work:
One final footnote for those who love the Coolidges for loving dogs. When President Coolidge went down onto the South Lawn to hear Jolson sing his campaign song, by his side was one member of the family’s famous menagerie. Take a look at Coolidge in the red circle – and the fellow on the ground to his right. The dog’s identity is a mystery.
- The First President To Win With Actors: Al Jolson’s 1920 Campaign Song for Harding (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Calvin Coolidge on Persistence & Determination (christianpf.com)
- Jimmy Carter’s Green “Country” Branded 1976 Campaign Song (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The First President Captured on Film: McKinley’s 1896 Campaign Song & Commercial (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Coolidge Gets a New Look (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
- Photos: The White House (americanclarion.com)