Dorothy Parker, the early 20th century American writer and poet, once approached Calvin Coolidge at a dinner party. “Mr. Coolidge,” she said, “I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” The then-vice president looked at her and replied, “You lose.”
Coolidge, who earned the nickname “Silent Cal” for his quiet bearing, was one cool cat. Sworn into office by his father upon the sudden death of President Harding in 1923, President Coolidge brought a constructive demeanor to the White House. His almost serene calm, even in the aftermath of tragically losing his son, was never confused with contrived pensiveness. Coolidge did not view the presidency as a conduit to fulfill personal fantasies and realize his political legacy. The job was to run the nation’s executive branch for a temporary period of time — and then to go home. “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a president,” he once said, “and I think I will go along with them.”
Our current conception of the office of president is far different than it was in 1923. No, Americans haven’t always rejected charismatic leaders (Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt preceded Coolidge, after all). But today, it’s a little bit different. In the Jacksonian era, we still championed masculine values — one of which is independence, or the dream of being left alone. Today, the culture doesn’t want to be left alone. We want to be a part of something. We want to be entertained. Presidential candidates, before being given the nuclear key, are thus asked to first hula hoop with society’s court jesters.
So we have Mr. Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres. We’re hearing him comment about Kanye West and Taylor Swift. At the checkout aisle, he’s on magazine covers, shirtless, and on a beach. It’s the kind of stuff Putin does.
The contemporary embroilment of politics with the pop culture is quite disconcerting. Though Obama has taken this presidential celebritydom to a new level, the fault rests not so much with him, but with the country. The reason he’s voicing his college basketball and Super Bowl picks is because we asked what they were.
Why do Americans continue to let the cultural view of the presidency go in this direction? At what point does it become shameful? Last year, the citizenry of Iran rose up in righteous fervor against their totalitarian oppressors. Thousands were bloodied; many were kidnapped and never heard from again. All these dissidents wanted, these brave teens, was some moral support — a simple statement of solidarity — from the leader of the free world. But he wasn’t there for a few weeks. He was on TV, grilling with Bobby Flay.
Free people are not supposed to be inundated daily with sound bites and images of their leader. Ideally, we shouldn’t have to hear from him (or her) for days, perhaps weeks at a time. Last month, Washington, D.C., was snowed in. The federal government couldn’t get to work. We didn’t hear from legislators for days. It was very refreshing, and yet, with Obama presumably at his desk, everything still continued to function properly.
Perhaps an older, grittier American public would have by now politely said: “Please Mr. President, no more Twitter tweets. Enough about your dog. From now on, stay inside, man the big red phone, and come out when the next group of Muslims tries to take down another one of our airliners.”
This is not to romanticize secrecy and detachment. Despite his secluded ways, President Coolidge still provided easy access to reporters, while making good use of new communication mediums like the radio. It’s not a bad thing to let the public know there’s still someone at the wheel. Nevertheless, in the future, the Silent Cal model of leadership style will no doubt reap increased political returns.
Viral video websites, fact-checking blogs, and the 24-hour news cycle may keep the powers that be in check, but they also serve to overexpose, creating an atmosphere where the public quickly grows tired of its president — his face, his voice, his idiosyncrasies. Consequently, we tune him out. How then for future presidents to revive and maintain the aura of the office? By keeping quiet until it matters. When a president speaks on an issue, it should be thunderous; it should reverberate throughout the entire U.S. political landscape –– throughout the world. We can get back to this, though it will require an unusual kind of politician.