Our national history shows that the larger interests have been best served when a president played to the higher ideals of the nation, and the ‘better angels’ of our nature. This year the cultural reckoning about racism has erupted loud and clear with what Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough reported this morning on his broadcast brought 15-26 million peaceful protesters out to the streets around the nation since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
For the past week, the center of the headlines and protests about police brutality has brought a focus on Kenosha, Wisconsin. It is reported Donald Trump will visit Tuesday with local officials and tour the areas impacted by violence following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Governor Tony Evers along with other state and local officials have requested Trump postpone his trip, as they fear his desire to use ‘law and order’ rhetoric will only inflame an already tense situation. Given past performances by Trump on Twitter and in other venues the concerns have merit.
Evers and other elected officials understand what is needed now are words from a national leader about why we should have hope in the midst of the justified anger. They know there needs to be a message megaphoned about plans, ideas, and legislation that reverses the trend of the deadly headlines and replaces them with ones about justice and policing reforms.
But no one believes that Trump has the desire or capacity to speak to that need, or that higher national ideal that literally is screaming out for a president to address.
Which takes us to President Calvin Coolidge. Many recall his nickname ‘Silent Cal’ but it was his inner desire to speak time and again about the racial issues of his time that brings him to mind. Kenosha and the nation now await someone to offer powerful words to demonstrate who we are as Americans at this juncture, and what a path forward to achieve our aims should look like.
Republican Coolidge proved how such presidential behavior takes place. One just stands up and leads.
It was obvious in his first State of the Union Address when he spoke in favor of the civil rights of African-Americans, telling Congress that the rights of these citizens were “just as sacred as those of any other citizen” according to the Constitution. He called it a “public and a private duty to protect those rights.”
At Howard University in 1924 he spoke how the nation “has need of all that can be contributed to it through the best efforts of all its citizens”. He talked about how African-Americans “have repeatedly proved their devotion to the high ideals of our country.”
What Coolidge repeatedly achieved during his time in the White House with his many remarks about including more people into the national community was his sense of civic patriotism. He rejected the nationalist pull that so many would have preferred he take, and instead spoke of values and foundations that have made this nation stronger. Leaders with moral strength have always found it easy to speak to the nation’s higher ideals.
What Kenosha needs this week is a Calvin Coolidge type message. What this nation yearns for this summer are words and plans that bind us together, and point us upwards and not at each other.
Sadly, Kenosha and the rest of the nation will not get that from a president this year.