Q and A with Michael Robinson

Why Coolidge Matters, a new book from the National Notary Association (NNA), is an eclectic collection of 21 essays by politicians, historians and journalists exploring the values and leadership qualities showcased by the 30th U.S. president, Calvin Coolidge. In an interview with The Hill, NNA Executive Director Michael Robinson talks about putting the book together and why he thinks Coolidge’s leadership style should serve as a model for modern-day public servants.
What inspired the creation of Why Coolidge Matters?
The National Notary Association has for a long time had a special place in its heart for Coolidge because he is the only president to ever be sworn in by a notary. But some years back, when we dove into studying him, we came to see his attributes — impartiality, commitment to public service, belief in the rule of law — and we came to appreciate him for a lot more than just his unique swearing-in ceremony. So about four years ago, we began working with the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation to get essays from people who could comment on the character and importance of Coolidge. It was an exercise of admiration for this great man and leader, who, for whatever reason, has been pretty much forgotten by historians and the public.

Who do you hope will read it?
In today’s highly partisan political climate, rife with bickering, I think it’s important for everyone with a stake in the nation to take another look at Coolidge and recognize how he accomplished so much.

How does Coolidge stand out as an example today?

It’s those traits I’ve been mentioning. It’s how he led, not only as president, but throughout his life as a public servant. This is a man who truly believed in serving his people with civility and honesty, and I think the nation responded well to it. So we need to look back at this man and put these values back at the front of our politics. 

The introduction to the book says Coolidge is often caricatured. How so?
Just take the prevalent moniker, “Silent Cal.” It’s really ironic, because he was truly a master of the media. He was the first president to do radio addresses, and he used his public speaking to lead and create consensus. So maybe he didn’t speak a lot, but when he did, it wasn’t clouded with a personal agenda. It was results-driven and aimed at serving the people best. 

Coolidge was known to champion causes he believed in even if it wasn’t politically fashionable to do so. Can you identify some of these and comment on what his advocacy for them meant back then?

We get caught up in our lives today and forget that it wasn’t too long ago that women couldn’t vote. But he was the fist vice president to make women’s suffrage an issue during his campaign, and he also addressed and worked on civil rights in the 1920s. These were very unpopular positions back then, but he knew they were right and deserved fighting for, so he took dangerous stances and stood by them because it was the right thing to do. 

Is there anything you think readers will be surprised to discover about Coolidge?

The thing that really struck me was his approach to fiscal responsibility. He turned around the debt from the First World War with such tact. And every year we were in a surplus during his presidency. In fact, there is much speculation that if his fiscal policies were maintained after his presidency in 1928, the Great Depression might never have occurred.

How would you compare civility in today’s political atmosphere to that of Coolidge’s time?
I think it was a confusing time then, as it is now. It was a different era, but there were backroom deals he inherited. And I’m not suggesting we have that high-level corruption today, but we definitely have issues, and unfortunately the ways we’re responding are increasingly political, partisan and hostile. That’s not how Coolidge approached his crises. He encouraged the expression of varying points of view, and for him, the point at the end of the day wasn’t scoring a point against a political opponent, but doing what was right.

What do you think is the most important legacy Coolidge left?
To be true to yourself; to have principles and to stick to them. And his principles — family, unpretentiousness, honesty, service — I think are still very highly regarded today. So hopefully readers can see that and take it as an example.