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Jewish World Review /June 29, 1998 / 5 Tamuz, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Teddy and Calvin
stood for virtue

JULY 1 IS THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY of the charge up San Juan Hill, whose momentum carried Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. On Aug. 3, 75 years ago, Calvin Coolidge became our 30th president.

Both men were moralists who practiced the virtues they espoused and, as such, provide a vivid contrast to Hubba Bubba, whose hormones are always at high tide.

Could two men be more dissimilar than Silent Cal and TR -- who, it was said, wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral? But Roosevelt and Coolidge, if not exactly soulmates, weren't all that dissimilar.

Both served in the legislature and governorship of their respective states. Both were students of history (TR wrote it, as well) and omnivorous readers. Both were nominated for vice president over the objections of the party bosses and became president on the untimely death of their predecessors.

Both presided over eras of prosperity. When they ran for re-election, each was won a landslide victory. America got a Square Deal from Teddy and Kept Cool with Coolidge.

And both had lives touched by tragedy. Roosevelt's first wife died when she was only 23. Coolidge lost his son Calvin Jr. in 1924. When his son died, this supposedly taciturn man admitted, "The power and glory of the presidency went with him."

On the other hand, Roosevelt came from knickerbocker aristocracy, while Coolidge was a Vermont farmer's son. Cal was a governmental minimalist. TR believed he could do whatever wasn't specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Coolidge walked away from power in 1928. Roosevelt tried vainly to regain it in 1912.

In economic policy, these presidents are closer than commonly imagined. Coolidge was no more a shill for big business than Roosevelt was an unthinking adversary of the same.

As a state legislator and governor, the Vermonter supported the six-day work week and limitations on child-labor and industrial-safety laws.

In a 1922 speech, he endorsed the then-progressive concept of employee stock ownership. "We must humanize industry, or the system will break down," Coolidge thoughtfully commented.

On becoming president of the Massachusetts senate, Coolidge exhorted his colleagues: "Do the day's work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that." TR is renowned as a trustbuster. But Taft, who's considered an arch-conservative, started twice as many anti-trust suits as Roosevelt.

The old Bull Moose bristled at business corruption and rapacity. Still, he appreciated the value of large-scale enterprise. "There should be no penalizing of a business merely because of its size," Roosevelt remarked. "Much of the outcry against wealth, against the men who acquire wealth, and against the means by which it is acquired, is blind, unreasoning and unjust."

TR was equally cutting in his critique of crackpot populists like William Jennings Bryan and European socialists. When Coolidge ran for Massachussetts governer in 1918, Roosevelt endorsed him, calling the candidate a "high-minded public servant."

Above all, both presidents were moralists -- one Victorian and the other Puritan. Coolidge was as ready to use the bully pulpit as the man who coined the term.

In his new biography (Coolidge: An American Enigma), Robert Sobel observes that Coolidge's speeches "often resembled more closely discourses on ethics and morality than agendas for action." In the Calvinist gospel, "Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character."

"If a strong man has not in him the lift toward lofty things, his strength makes him only a curse to himself and his neighbor," the Rough Rider cautioned.

"Can those entrusted with the gravest authority set any example save that of the sternest obedience to the law?" Coolidge added.

Which brings us to the king of executive privilege and paragon of the Age of Lewinsky. "The thought of Coolidge philandering ... lying or flip-flopping on the issues would have amazed even his political enemies," Sobel says.

It's impossible to imagine TR approving the export of technology with military applications to a potential enemy to pay off a campaign contributor.

Roosevelt and Coolidge were 20th century presidents whose ethics were shaped by bygone eras. The current occupant of the office is himself a throwback -- to the Borgia popes.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.