Calvin Coolidge: Showing (Who is Was) Rather than Telling

By , January 31, 2014 3:01 pm

I’ve been listening to Amity Shlaes’s book “Coolidge” as I run. The other day I listened to a story she tells about the recently inaugurated president still living at the Willard Hotel, apparently waiting until the Mrs. Harding moved out of the White House. In the story, Coolidge is asleep and awake in the middle of the night to discover a thief going through his clothes. As the story (remember, I’m listening to, not reading the story):

He watched as the thief first removed a wallet, then unhooked a watch chain. Coolidge calmly spoke
up from the darkness: “About that watch, I wish you wouldn’t take that.”

The startled man, gaining his voice, asked, “Why?”

Coolidge answered, “I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm. I’m very fond of that charm. It means a great deal to me. Take it near
the window and read what is engraved on the back of it.”

The burglar read: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge, Speaker of the House, by the Massachusetts General Court.” And now he was more surprised!

“Are you President Coolidge?” he asked. He evidently did not think he’d find the President sleeping in a hotel!

“Yes, I am, and I don’t want you to take that charm,” he said. Then he asked, “Why, Son, are you doing this?”

The young man explained that he and a friend traveled to Washington during their college break. They spent all of their money and had no
money to pay the hotel bill or pay for train passage back to school. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll just take the wallet.”

Coolidge did mind. He knew he had about $80 in his wallet. So he said, “How much will it take to pay your hotel bill and get you and
your friend back to the campus? Sit down and let’s talk this over.” Coolidge added up the room rate and two rail tickets. It came to $32.
That may not sound like much now, but it was a considerable sum then. “I’ll give you the $32 as a loan,” the President said, “and I expect
you to pay me back.”

The youth thanked him. Coolidge then advised him to leave by the same window he used to enter the room, as secret service agents were sure
to be patrolling the hallway. As the young man climbed out, Coolidge left him with this admonition: “Son, you’re a nice boy. You are better
than you are acting. You are starting down the wrong road. Just remember who you are.”

It wasn’t until after the death of Mrs. Coolidge in 1957 that this story was allowed to come out. It was first published in the “Los
Angeles Times.” And most interesting of all is that the President’s notes show that the young man was indeed better than he was acting.
He repaid the $32 loan in full.

Shlaes could have told me a million times what a good man Coolidge was, but she didn’t have to. The picture she described showed me who he was.

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