If brevity is the soul of wit, it is unfortunate that Calvin Coolidge (shown) is remembered more for his greatly exaggerated brevity than for his frequently overlooked wit. Indeed, two of the famous quotes attributed to Coolidge have often been cited to suggest dullness rather than keenness of insight.
"The business of America is business," our 30th president said, suggesting to some people a too narrow view of the meaning of life and politics in this blessed Republic. Worse, a badly worded statement about unemployment ("When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results.") makes our 30th president seem as rhetorically inept as our 43rd. But unlike George W. Bush, Calvin Coolidge would have seen the folly of getting the federal government more heavily and unconstitutionally involved in the education of American children, to the point where President Obama is now calling for a national preschool program. And while the man from Plymouth Notch, Vermont, sometimes displayed a New England style of folksiness, he did not take the kind of liberties with rules of grammar and logic the second President Bush took when he spoke of how "wings take dream" and raised the question, "Is our children learning?" Nor did Coolidge have Bush's peculiar talent for expressing sympathy for Americans "working hard to put food on your family."
When the White House staff was but a fraction of the size it is today, a popular story of Coolidge concerned the question of how many people he had working for him at the White House. "About half of them," came the reply. Whether the issue was government employees, the federal budget or collegiality in the U.S. Senate, Coolidge was an acknowledged master at getting to the heart of the matter quickly, decisively — and succinctly. Once a senator was foolish enough to complain to the president of a colleague who had told him to go to hell.
"I looked up the law, Senator," Coolidge replied, "and you don't have to go."
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Photo of Calvin Coolidge: AP Images