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President Obama could learn from Calvin Coolidge

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Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 12:00 am

A few weeks ago in my column, I wondered why President Obama chose to run for re-election. Had Obama declined the nomination, he could have retired from politics as the first African-American president, elected in a landslide and a Nobel Prize winner. Obama could then declare victory on all fronts and start his new career as a multimillion dollar author and public speaker.

Now that Obama decided to run, however, he can only lose either literally or figuratively. Mitt Romney may unseat Obama or, if the president prevails, he'll have to spend four years fighting an uncooperative Congress, possibly Republican-controlled, and will go out as most lame duck presidents do — unpopular.

As I pondered Obama's dilemma this past Independence Day, I thought of 30th President Calvin Coolidge, conveniently (for the purposes of this essay) born on the Fourth of July.

In 1929, Coolidge wrote "The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge," with the final chapter titled "Why I Chose Not to Run."

You probably haven't spent much time lately considering Coolidge and likely know little more about him than his nickname, "Silent Cal." But I recommend his book to you for the invaluable insights it offers into Coolidge, a president born on a Vermont farm who could translate Cicero from Latin into English and wrote his own speeches. With only 250 pages, the book is an easy read.

Coolidge began his political career in 1916 as Massachusetts' lieutenant governor, and by 1919 became the Bay State's governor. In 1920, Coolidge unexpectedly ran for Vice President on the same ticket as the eventual Republican winner Warren G. Harding. Coolidge became nationally prominent.

In 1923, Harding died while touring California. Coolidge finished out Harding's term and then, riding a wave of enormous popularity, won handily in 1924.

But when 1928 rolled around, Coolidge had no desire to serve another term. Although his re-election was guaranteed, Coolidge wanted no part of spending 10 years total in the White House.

Eloquently explaining his reasoning in his book, Coolidge warned that men in high office suffer from the "malady of self-delusion" and are "surrounded by worshipers" that "assure them of their greatness." Those circumstances, concluded Coolidge, create "an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgement. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant."

Coolidge examined the records of two-term presidents and found that in their second four years they "showed very little in the way of constructive accomplishment." Then, as if forecasting the challenges that await Obama, Coolidge wrote that as a president's time in office grows longer, the numbers of the disappointed grow proportionately. Coolidge opined: "Finally, there is so large a body of those who have lost confidence in him that he meets a rising opposition which makes his efforts less effective."

In conclusion, Coolidge noted that he returned to the people as a private citizen, and he wanted to do so as the popular man he had been throughout his administration.

Withdrawing voluntarily is admirable and noble. To drag the nation through a nasty, finger-pointing, self-serving campaign is neither. I might add that Coolidge's wisdom isn't necessarily limited to sitting presidents only.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, meet President Calvin Coolidge.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Despite rumors to the contrary, Joe is not old enough to have voted for Coolidge. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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