- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

"Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things there will be born in us a savior and over us all will shine a star, sending its gleam of hope to the world."

Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge began the tradition of the president presiding at an annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The above handwritten message he released during his last Christmas in the White House told as much about the man as it did the holiday.

George W. Bush both as a candidate and as president-elect has pledged to restore integrity and honor to the nation's highest office. As he sets out to do so, he can draw inspiration from an all but forgotten predecessor who is making a comeback, Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Aug. 2, 1923. The affable Harding had been a popular chief executive. His pledge of a return to "normalcy" seemed the perfect remedy for a nation that had grown weary after two decades of increased government activism and partisan strife, spanning from the Progressive era through the First World War and its aftermath of disillusion and cynicism. Not long after his funeral, even the most ardent of Harding's admirers concluded that the fallen leader had headed the most corrupt administration of any in American history up to that time.

Leasing government oil reserves to private interests in return for personal gain landed a jail sentence for the secretary of the interior. Profiteering, kickbacks and extortion brought the same to the director of the Veterans Bureau.

Other officials were found to have taken bribes. Two assistants to Harding high-ups, including the attorney general, committed suicide before either their or the patrons' wrongdoings became public.

Harding had not been involved in any of these sordid episodes. His reputation fell into decline nevertheless because of his participation in scandals of a different nature. Today one might refer to them as his "private life" or "bimbo eruptions." Several of his associates, on the public payroll and off, spent much of their waking hours covering up for him often with large sums of cash. The first lady proved a willing accomplice, if not an "enabler." She destroyed much incriminating evidence.

The task of restoring "integrity" and "honor" to the presidency fell on a most unlikely candidate. Coolidge was all Harding was not. He was a family man; Harding, a bon vivant. Coolidge was taciturn and shy; Harding gregarious. Coolidge was a good administrator; Harding conducted his public and private affairs in a manner that proved him worthy of a label Alice Roosevelt Longworth gave him, that of a "slob."

Most importantly, Coolidge was a man of faith. The biographer who termed him a "Puritan in Babylon" had it right. The designation aptly described both the president and the permissiveness of his times.

Coolidge traced the origins of American democracy and his own philosophy of government to their religious underpinnings. He believed more in the power of invisible, but enduring ideals, than in the material and the transient. He insisted that the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence would perish if the American people abandoned the religious convictions from which equality, liberty, popular sovereignty and natural rights sprang.

He insisted that since the people were the source of those ideals, they "have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government," he argued. That has been the premise that has guided "growth" oriented or "empowerment" conservatives ever since. No wonder Ronald Reagan, in one of his first acts as president, ordered Coolidge's picture hung in the Cabinet room.

There were many similarities between the two and with President-elect Bush's hopes for America. Coolidge cut taxes four times during his presidency. Seventy percent of the reductions went to those who earned $10,000 a year or more. Those earning less than $3,000, no small sum in the 1920s, paid no taxes at all.

Coolidge's tax cuts produced the economic boom of the 1920s. Similar undertakings during the Kennedy and Reagan administrations did the same in the 1960s and 1980s.

Coolidge saw the acquisition of wealth not as an end in itself, but as a means towards making society more moral and his country more free and virtuous. From it, he believed, flowed the "multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture."

Casting his faith in the power of the unseen Coolidge was able to transcend the racism and nativism of his era. To a biracial audience at the Tuskegee Institute, he tried to find meaning in the hardships of the Great War:

"Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in goodwill, not seeking an advantage over each other but all trying to serve each other."

To a gathering of the Holy Name Society with an optimism displayed in modern times only by Ronald Reagan, Coolidge declared, "Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing." President-elect Bush will need to draw on that same faith.

Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate For Leadership 2000 Project at the Heritage Foundation.

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