Undoubtedly, he won't remember it. But I do. The date was March 18, 1980. The place was Connecticut, on the road from New Haven to Stamford. That's where I asked Ronald Reagan, presidential candidate, which past president he most admired, and why.
In the course of his reply, Ronald Reagan said: "I admire Calvin Coolidge. . . . He cut taxes several times. He made installments on the national debt. We knew probably as solid a period of prosperity, without inflation, as we've known in this century."
Just shrewd politics, you say, to pay tribute, on the eve of an important New England Republican presidential primary, to the last New England Republican president. If you're an outsider seeking votes in San Antonio, it never hurts to pay your respects at the Alamo.
Now we are six months into the Reagan presidency, and one pro-administration line, making the rounds, goes like this: the president has the Washington press corps totally confounded; the Washington press corps has no experience in covering a president who keeps his campaign promises.
Some people in Washington are spending the summer of '81 taking a second look at Ronald Reagan. Nobody, doing so, should feel bad. Ronald Reagan has achieved great political success, in part, by being consistently underestimated by his critics and his political opponents.
One of the promises Reagan has kept, and about which there ha been little comment, is to the memory of Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait is now on prominent display in the Reagan White House. Coolidge, as well, may be entitled to a second look.
Silent Cal, who was allegedly quite chatty in private, was not without his critics. Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quipped that the unsmiling Coolidge had been weaned on a pickle. Another observed that the country, in the '20s, wanted nothing done, and Cal obliged them completely. Mencken, for once, was kinder than some: "He had no ideas, but he was not a nuisance."
In fairness to the man, let's hear directly from him: "The man who builds a factory," wrote Calvin Coolidge, "builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there." Not much ambiguity there.
In his inaugural address, Coolidge defined economy in government as "idealism in its most practical form." Then there was Cal's most-repeated epigram: "the business of America is business."
When there was talk in this country after World War I of a moratorium on the Allied war debts owed to the United States, Coolidge won for himself the perpetual gratitude of future generations of foreclosing bankers when he said: "They hired the money, didn't they?"
During any administration, the White House wall space is limited.To put Coolidge up, somebody else had to come down. That somebody else was the founder of the University of Virginia, the author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty and the author of the Declaration of Independence. He was a certified gadfly, dabbling in philosophy, architecture, archaeology and engineering.
Thomas Jefferson, for some reason -- may be liberal bias -- has generally enjoyed a better press than Calvin Coolidge. Listen to some of Jefferson's lines: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. . ."
High on the wall of Jefferson's memorial in Washington (which to visit is a guaranteed exercise in humility) are these words: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The Virginian could be eloquent, I grant you.
Of course, Jefferson did first identify and then express the idealism of his people. And, in the process, he made a nation. Jefferson, it can be said, gave America its citizenship papers. His Declaration of Independence has touched more people, moved more people than all the words of Marx and Mao. Coolidge may have lacked vision, but he did cut taxes several times.
You can tell me that Rex Reed is the new commandant of the Marine Corps. Tell me that the Pentagon now wants to put MX missiles in unmarked cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. But don't try and tell me that Calvin Coolidge could ever substitute for Thomas Jefferson. That's almost a national sacrilege.