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President Calvin Coolidge’s Off-Putting Style With The Press

February 8, 2016

Not the way I would want a current president to deal with the press—but this account from the days of Calvin Coolidge makes for an interesting read.

There are a bunch of very weird anecdotes about Coolidge calling advisors into the Oval Office and then just…staring at them, silently. In an interview with advisor Bernard Baruch, he said his technique for dealing with visitors who wanted something was to simply let them talk themselves out. “Well, Baruch,” he said, “many times I say only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes more.” Famously, when he died, Dorothy Parker said, “How can they tell?”

He deflected questions mercilessly and, in seeming total contrast to politicians of today, showed absolutely no interest in earning the affection of his audiences. Here is a typical exchange, from Vermont History:

During the 1924 presidential campaign a newsman sought Coolidge out. “Mr. President,” he asked, “what do you think of Prohibition?” “No comment,” replied Coolidge. “Will you say something about unemployment?” “No,” said Coolidge. “Will you tell us your views about the world situation?” persisted the reporter. “No.” “About your message to Congress?” “No.” The disappointed reporter started to leave, but as he reached the door Coolidge said, “Wait.” Hopefully, the man turned around and Coolidge cautioned: “Now remember—don’t quote me.”

Yet this was actually a bizarre and extremely effective strategy. Coolidge’s relationship with reporters, far from being as antagonistic as that anecdote makes it seem, was warm and friendly. He gave more press conferences than any other president, but on his terms: questions would be submitted via slips of paper before the conference, and Coolidge would look through those and pick out which ones he felt like answering. (If there were no questions he felt like answering, he’d say so and just leave.) His answers were not for attribution, meaning they could never be used in an article, which gave Coolidge the ability to cultivate a relationship with the press corps without much risk of gaffes.

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