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Radio President

01/04/08 5:55PM By Cyndy Bittinger
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(HOST) Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the death of Calvin Coolidge, the only U.S. President buried in the hills of Vermont. Commentator Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, and she says that despite his reputation as a man of few words, Coolidge was actually a communications visionary.

(BITTINGER) President Coolidge once wrote, "We draw our Presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people.  I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."

And he is. His grave, in the Plymouth town cemetery is very unassuming - with only the American bald eagle on his granite stone to signify presidential status.  It's a quiet resting place for the man once called "Silent Cal."  But Coolidge was anything but silent.  In fact, he was one of the best communicators of his time - on the radio.

In the 1920's, Calvin Coolidge was the first American president to effectively use this new invention.  We remember Franklin D. Roosevelt with his fireside chats via the radio, but Coolidge's radio presence predates him by a decade.  

When President Warren Harding died suddenly in 1923, Vice President Coolidge needed to introduce himself quickly to the American public and gain recognition as the newly sworn in President.  Coolidge understood that he could bypass Congress and his party, and speak directly to the people, through the radio - despite the fact that his Vermont accent made the word cow sound like three syllables. (He said something like, "Kee-yow.") After all, this was a time before our homogenized American accent ruled the airwaves.  
Coolidge presented serious lessons about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other U.S. Presidents via the new medium.  Yet he also used it when his cat was lost.  It worked; the cat was found at the Navy Yard and returned!  When the Coolidges' sixteen year old son, Calvin Junior, died from septicemia, radio stations carried the memorial service so the nation could mourn with the first family.

For his 1924 campaign, the president asked Ethel Barrymore, the most prominent star of stage and screen at the time, to endorse him over the radio. His concluding remarks of the campaign were, "To my father, who is listening in my old home in Vermont, and to my other invisible audience I say, Good Night."  Commentators at the time said the radio re-elected Coolidge

The president didn't listen to radio shows as much as his wife, Grace, did.  She was an avid baseball fan and listened while needlepointing seat covers to beautify the White House.

In 1927, Coolidge urged Congress to pass the Federal Radio Act.  He advocated for the "widest freedom" of radio use, believing that rural America would be best served by many stations. And he supported a national initiative to provide radio sets to the blind.

The public became so used to hearing Coolidge on the air, that once, when entertainer Will Rogers imitated Coolidge in a radio broadcast, the audience thought it really was the president talking.  Rogers had to speak again to correct the impression that our sitting president was now a comedian.

(Commentary ends with a short segment of speech by the real Calvin Coolidge.)

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