CALVIN COOLIDGE IN THE BLACK HILLS
By Seth Tupper
The History Press, $21.99, 156 pages
On Aug. 2, 1927, a small group of reporters were invited to President Calvin Coolidge's "Summer White House" in Black Hills, South Dakota. Each reporter was handed a strip of paper containing the same line, "I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty eight."
Coolidge, a man of few words, took no further questions. The phone and telegraph offices were immediately flooded by the press pool, and a bizarre moment in U.S. political history had been written.
Seth Tupper's book, "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills," doesn't shed new light on this announcement. It doesn't explain why Coolidge, a highly intelligent individual, would use such a "clunky phrase" that helped cast "an ambiguous shadow over the entire sentence," either. But what this well-written volume does provide is further analysis and insight into what role the crisp, clean Black Hills air may have had in the culmination of a successful political career.
South Dakota had "made a failed attempt to host a presidential vacation in 1926." Coolidge had opted for New York's Adirondack Mountains, which was closer to Washington. During heated discussions about the McNaryHaugen Farm Relief Act, and tensions with the Farm Bloc (a group of Republicans and Democrats who wanted to "ease the economic suffering of their agricultural constituents"), he announced that he would be going westward in 1927.
There's little doubt the first Summer White House in the West was a "political move" to mend fences. While Coolidge hadn't made a formal decision about his re-election bid, this trip "would allow him to gauge the extent of western opposition to his candidacy," Mr. Tupper writes. If he already decided to run again, it "would give him a chance to campaign for the western votes he needed."
In May, Coolidge settled on the Black Hills of South Dakota at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. Mr. Tupper writes that the "tranquility of the park erupted into a cacophony of sawing, hammering and all manner of renovation work." A large dining hall, the Game Lodge Inn (later rechristened Coolidge Inn), was built along with a road and lookout tower on the peak of Sheep Mountain (eventually called Mount Coolidge).
"Here, with the sinking sun bathing the scene in dramatic light," writes Mr. Tupper, "the Coolidges got their first breath of fresh mountain air, their first smell of the pine forest and their first taste of a summer of relative freedom and privacy, away from the hat, humidity, bugs and hubbub of the nation's capital."
It had a profound effect.
Coolidge had a "simple desire to go fishing," which he enjoyed but "depended largely on others to engineer his success." The death of his beloved collie dog, Prudence Prim, "received a mention" in his autobiography. Many Western experiences were described as being of the "cowboy-and-Indian variety." He met with the Sioux of South Dakota, and those visits "were fraught with complexity." He chose a "tiny, white, clapboard Congregational church in Hermosa" to attend Sunday services, which "was reminiscent of the small church [he] attended as a boy in rural Plymouth Notch, Vermont."
He also gave a "pledge of monetary support" for Mount Rushmore. Coolidge even said at the dedication, "Money spent for such a purpose is certain of adequate returns in the nature of increased public welfare." For a fiscally conservative politician, those were stunning words, indeed.
There was an unusual incident that occurred in the Black Hills, too. Coolidge became furious when his wife, Grace, arrived late from one of her regular hikes with a Secret Service man, Jim Haley. There was "no allegation of impropriety between Haley, who was happily married, and the First Lady," but some interpreted his actions as being "like those of a jealous husband." Haley was reassigned to Washington two days later.
Did these events change Coolidge's demeanor and career ambitions?
His autobiography mentions the presidency's "appalling burden" and belief that his job was done, among other things. In contrast, Mr. Tupper points out his "uncharacteristically boyish sense of freedom" in the Black Hills "may have arisen not only from a desire to win the affection of Western farmers but also from a liberating realization, derived from personal exposure to farmers and farm leaders, that press reports of popular outrage over his McNary-Haugen veto were overblown."
Hence, the "positive agricultural mood he found" in South Dakota "may have simply encouraged Coolidge to follow through on a decision he had already made." That's something I do choose to believe.
• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.