Silent Cal

 Calvin Coolidge seems to me to be one of those nonentity presidents like Eisenhower and George Bush the elder, who were in the office primarily to prevent another person from being president and actually doing something with the office.  What kind of president, after all, takes off a whole summer to go fishing?  Old Cal did.  Actually I can think of a great many public officers who I would like to see take whole summers, nay, whole years, away from office.  Once an admiring citizen found him in a contemplative mood on the deck of the presidential yacht.  The citizen wondered out loud what thoughts burdened the mind of the president at moments like this.  Coolidge said:“See that seagull over there?  Been watching it for twenty minutes.  Hasn’t moved.  I think it's dead.”  He had problems with the Vision Thing too.  Personally and emotionally he was so inert that when told that Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker asked, “How can they tell?”
     I read a story this week that has tempered my judgment of the man.  After he was elected president, but before he moved into the White House, Coolidge lived at the Willard Hotel in Washington. In the middle of one night, he was waked from sleep by the furtive sounds of a cat burglar stealing his wallet and watch. Coolidge said to the man, “I wish you wouldn’t take that.  I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm.  Read what is engraved on the back of it.”  The burglar read: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge, Speaker of the House, by the Massachusetts General Court.”  Coolidge introduced himself and persuaded the man that he was the President of the United States and to return the watch, charm, and wallet. Then Coolidge engaged him in quiet conversation.  He learned that the young man was a student so broke that he did not have money to pay his hotel bill or buy a train ticket back to his campus.  Coolidge counted thirty-two dollars out of his retrieved wallet, gave it to the student, and told him that it was a loan.  Then Coolidge suggested to him that he leave the way he had come in, through the window, to avoid the Secret Service.  He did and later repaid the loan.
    Coolidge could have summoned the Secret Service.  He didn’t.  He could have verbally assaulted him or deceived him, leading him into capture.  He didn’t.  Instead Coolidge chose a nonviolent, or more precisely, a kind response.  He spoke, one person to another, asking for a small concession from the thief.  He listened and was sympathetic, generous even.  The occurrence of a president of the United States speaking and listening, from the center of the empire, to an impoverished, young criminal makes this story memorable.  But the end of the story insures that it will be told and retold.  Coolidge shared the story with only two other people in his lifetime.  On his insistence, the details of the episode were not published for sixty years.
    Imagine a contemporary president being so accessible to citizens that a cat burglar could accidentally break into his bedroom.  Just as the bars in a zoo are designed to protect the animals, not the people, the Secret Service does not protect the president so much as it protects the people who might get near the president. The unlucky crook today, arrested in the president’s bedroom, might one day escape the clutches of the legal system physically, but he would be surveilled, and audited for the rest of his days, if not by the FBI then certainly by the media. 
    Imagine a contemporary president inquiring about, listening to, trusting, and being generous toward an unknown, impoverished criminal.  Imagine a contemporary president failing to exploit such an encounter.  Politicians today confess the great void in their personalities by attempting to appear “kinder and gentler”.  Presidents these days tell stories about themselves like this one even if they didn’t happen. They could learn something from old Cal.

Gross Bug
Gross Bug

Wasps scare me. They also make me angry. Foolishly, I think that they don't need to be so violent. They are little Nazis, Talibans, or Klansmen that not only deserve, but need to be squashed. While spiders scare me, they stir no ethical responses in me. I know spiders can hurt me, but my response is ruled by the same part of my brain that jerks my hand away from a hot pan. I do not seek out spiders to kill them the way I do wasps. I have helped spiders out of plastic buckets in my garage and buy wasp killer at the hardware store, hoping to have an opportunity soon to kill some tiny Taliban. This morning I found a variety of centipede in my tub that didn't frighten me, but it did completely gross me out. While its serpentine movement was beautiful and the coordination of all of those segments, legs, and feelers was astonishing, it nauseated me.

My ancestor

The revulsion I felt in my intestines clobbered the awe my cerebrum sensed. Turning on the shower swept the awesome and disgusting thing away, but the strainer prevented it from disappearing. I nearly vomited when I saw that all of those legs and antennae swirling around, still coordinated, but controlled by the water now, not its tiny internal computer. I used the butt of a shampoo bottle to break it up and send it down the drain. Gross. Gross. Gross. While my fear of pit bulls and the Taliban I learned, my reaction to centipedes I inherited. Every single one of my ancestors straight back to the Olduvai Gorge has used the butts of shampoo bottles to break up and send centipedes down the drain rather than touch them. That revulsion must have been accumulated in the preceding sixty-three million years. My grandmother about seven million generations ago, when she looked like a cross between a rat and a lemur, snatched up Mr. Gross with her bare hands. He was lunch. Sixty-three million years is about right. I would need that much time to get used to centipedes in my tub.