A Century Ago Today: A Calvin Coolidge Christmas

If the creek don’t rise, you’ll be hearing much more from this quarter on the topic of RADIO (the old time kind) over the next few months and years, as we are now beginning to enter a stretch of time that will be rich in historic broadcast centennial benchmarks. My next book (scheduled for the middle of next year) will talk some about vaudeville and variety on the radio, for example, and we’ll certainly be noting benchmarks and debuts of various sorts as we hit their 100th anniversaries.

As it happens, the one we report today isn’t particularly significant in itself. Calvin Coolidge was only the Vice President when this pre-recorded message was broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1922. President Harding had already become the first President to be heard over the radio a few months earlier. But the popular Harding would soon be dead, leaving “Silent Cal” ironically, to become the first U.S. Chief Executive to be regularly heard over a mass medium starting in December, 1923.

A few weeks ago I happened to stumble over this extremely thorough article about the one that aired a century ago today (don’t ask me how) and, in addition to it being mildly interesting from a technological standpoint, I found the content of the speech such a hoot that I had to share it. Dorothy Parker’s quip in response to Coolidge’s death (“How can they tell?”) will be illuminated as you read these exceedingly odd remarks. As schoolkids, we were accustomed (at least I was) to regarding Harding-Coolidge-Hoover all of a piece, just one solid block of Republican conservatives. But as you drill down into history you begin to get a feel for their wildly divergent styles. The Harding/Coolidge divide is not unlike the ones that characterized Reagan and Bush I, or for that matter Trump and Pence. Harding was kind of a flashy, colorful character, a crooked wheeler-dealer, a mid-western Chamber of Commerce Babbitt type, and (as H.L. Mencken never tired of ridiculing), given to malapropisms. Coolidge, on the other hand lived up to the New England stereotype of NOT being voluble or expansive or spicy or fun or even breathing.

The attached speech is mind-numbing in its platitudinous yet bewildering gibberish, full of the repeated use of the passive voice (a no-no anytime, let alone in a speech, which is supposed to engage the listener) and sentiments so vague they retain their power to induce a coma a century after the fact. “The universal right of freedom has been acknowledged.  Obedience to authority has been sanctified.  The existence of a common brotherhood has been disclosed.  The ever-abiding obligation of service has been established.” It sounds like a voice-over from an Ed Wood movie. “That which a man has for his home comfort has been deemed coarse and harsh against the skin as compared with angora.” And once you slap yourself awake and attempt to focus in on what he’s saying you realize how deeply weird and even chilling are the sentiments he expresses. “Obligation” “Obedience”. In a Christmas speech? Sexy! I’m overcome with emotion! But that’s about as close as Coolidge ever gets to the more typical exhortations to cheer and generosity we usually associate with The Season of Giving. It’s like the Christmas speech that might be attempted by Ebenezer Scrooge BEFORE the ghosts show up. He actually employs the words “thrift” and “industry”! Have a penny-pinching and grim Christmas! Signed, “Frosty”!

Read all about it at the Calvin Coolidge Foundation website (yes, there’s a Calvin Coolidge Foundation) here.