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Great thoughts on ethics in government

10/31/03 12:00AM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(Host) As VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Cyndy Bittinger reflects on Calvin Coolidge and his thoughts on ethical conduct in politics.

(Bittinger) Calvin Coolidge was the product of small town democracy. He wrote that when he was a boy in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, during the 1880's, the smallest political unit was the school district.

During his early years, before women had the state or national vote, his town extended suffrage to women. And since the great majority of the town was Republican, votes were based directly on issues - not on party lines.

Coolidge learned about campaigning from his father and grandfather. They were "peace officers" or constables in the town of Plymouth, and they taught him a great deal about political discourse and conduct. Coolidge listened when his father advised local folks about the law. He later wrote that his father "always counseled them to resist injustice and avoid unfair dealing, but to keep their agreements, meet their obligations and observe strict obedience to the law."

The two men taught young Calvin to be respectful of working men and women. He was to give his seat up in the horse drawn wagon when the hired man needed to go to town. Coolidge retained a notable lack of pretension, even after assuming the presidency. Upon reaching the White House, the first note he wrote was to his cobbler, Irishman James Lucey in Northampton, Massachusetts. Lucey was a supporter who befriended him when Coolidge was just an awkward college boy. When the young man acquired a home of his own, Lucey was often invited to Sunday dinner.

The newly minted president wrote: "Not often do I see you or write you but I want you to know that, if it were not for you, I should not be here, and I want to tell you how much I love you. Do not work too much now and try to enjoy yourself in your well earned leisure of age."

Coolidge was conscious of trying to set a good example for other politicians and he drew from his Vermont roots of fairness and respect for the law. After he suddenly became president, he recalled, "Fate bestows its rewards on those who put themselves in the proper attitude to receive them." This humble statement speaks volumes about what he thought was proper behavior.

Alfred E. Smith, a Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1928 against Herbert Hoover, wrote a memorial after Coolidge died in 1933, "He was keen, shrewd, kindly and entirely free from ..conceit...
Mr. Coolidge belongs ...in the class of Presidents who were distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history, and to afford, in a time of extravagance and waste, a shining public example of the simple and homely virtues which came down to him from his New England ancestors."

This is Cyndy Bittinger documenting the Coolidge legacy in Plymouth Notch.

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation.
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