Shame on us: How did we get from Coolidge to Trump and Biden?

Plymouth Notch, Vt. — One hundred years ago on Aug. 2, President Warren Harding died and Calvin Coolidge became America’s 30th president.

The contrast between the two men is stark. While Harding was extremely popular with voters, later revelations doomed his presidency to the bottom rungs. Scandals included paying hush money to cover up extramarital affairs (sound familiar?), an out-of-wedlock child, and criminal activity by cronies.

In the tiny hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vt., where the “hold button” seems to have been pushed in 1923, people have gathered to commemorate Coolidge’s ascendancy to the presidency. Because of a family relationship to first lady Grace Coolidge, I was invited to narrate a re-enactment of events leading up to the oath of office administered in the middle of the night by Coolidge’s father.

Coolidge was untouched by scandal because he first developed qualities as a boy that are increasingly lost in contemporary politics. As David Schribman wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “What most endures about Coolidge is his character. His modesty would be unimaginable in the modern era, when so much of politics has turned into noisy theater, constant self-promotion and the demonization of opponents.”

But enough about Donald Trump.

Schribman quotes former Vermont Republican Governor James Douglas: “(Coolidge) refused to criticize his political adversaries and reached across the aisle regularly, plying members of Congress with griddle cakes and Vermont maple syrup.”

That likely wouldn’t work today, but the point should not be lost. Treating adversaries as equals and with respect can open the door for conversation, compromise, even agreement.

Who is to blame for the corrosive nature of today’s politics? Some blame the media. Others fault politicians, who often appear more interested in perpetuating their careers and fundraising than promoting the general welfare.

The real blame lies with voters. Polls show majorities in both parties prefer presidential candidates other than Donald Trump and Joe Biden and yet polls also show both men are – as of now – headed to re-nomination by their respective parties.

When did character cease to matter in our political leadership? The answer is when it stopped mattering to a substantial number of voters. The scandal of evangelicalism is especially disturbing. People who follow the Christian faith have traditionally been arbiters of right and wrong, their principles drawn from Scripture. But now, like those false gods worshiped by the ancient Israelites, so many appear to have exchanged the principles they once claimed to hold dear for the modern version of the false god of politics.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are reflections of what is wrong in contemporary culture. They also reflect voter priorities. If voters care less about character and integrity and more about the economy and what has come to be known as the “woke” agenda, that will be reflected in leadership.

It’s easy to blame externals for what is rotten within. Coolidge would have none of that. In 1926, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he said: “Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true … their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”

Take note modern voters. If we elect bad leaders we have no one to blame but ourselves. Shame on us.

Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com.