This year, we celebrate the 141st anniversary of the birth of Calvin Coolidge and the invention of Vaseline.

There’s no record of the day Robert Chesebrough first introduced his invention of petroleum jelly to the world, and no one cares. On the other hand some of us, including our governor, find it significant that the 30th president was born on the Fourth of July.

Paul LePage’s library includes hundreds of volumes on history and biography, and he has read several recent books about the only president born on the Glorious Fourth. When he took an adamant stand against Medicaid expansion back in May, LePage was quoted as saying “Calvin Coolidge said one thing that stuck with me: ‘It’s always more important to beat bad public policy than it is to pass good public policy.'”

My guess is that our governor would rather talk about Coolidge on the nation’s birthday than about petroleum jelly, but his casual ribaldry at the expense of Sen. Troy Jackson has foreclosed that option.

If LePage had paid closer attention to the life and career of “Silent Cal,” the governor might have foreseen that if you want to talk about one of your favorite presidents — or about the budget — you don’t want to mention Vaseline. Indeed, there’s no record of the Vermonter ever mentioning that product. Readers who check out will see that this is so.

One quote found there seems not to have stuck with LePage: “I don’t recall any candidate for president that ever injured himself very much by not talking.” Still, if our state’s chief executive deserves criticism for his untimely introduction of the Vaseline motif, what should we make of those outraged dimwits who consider his tactless sally more important than the budget?


We understand the Democrats’ eagerness to shift the discussion away from tax increases, but why would our media think that indiscretion more important for Maine and its economic future?

Let’s leave that mystery unresolved and give some thought to why the governor thinks Coolidge is worth quoting and reading about. A famous writer expressed the liberal view of the man when she heard that he had died (1933): “How could they tell?”

In that view he didn’t do anything or, worse, all he did was reduce the deficit and reduce taxes. This view seemed set in stone by 1940, after which almost nothing was written about him for more than 40 years, only two books altogether.

Then Ronald Reagan shocked the academic community by ordering Coolidge’s portrait mounted in the place of honor in the White House. Subsequently, a dozen new books appeared, most of them favorable. The JFK Presidential Library held a symposium about Coolidge’s administration in 1998 and another in 2010.

Numerous articles and academic papers have appeared since 2000. “Coolidge” by Amity Shlaes, published this year, is the best and most complete biography so far. Her laudatory conclusions have scandalized liberal reviewers. They figured Cal had been forever embalmed and entombed 60 years ago.

Historical revision and reinterpretation of the subject are about as welcome to that conformist crew as gay marriage is to traditional Christians.


LePage’s interest in, and respect for, the Coolidge legacy is easily understood. The president lowered the national debt from $22.3 billion in 1923 to $16.9 billion in 1929, while reducing the top tax rate from 73 percent in 1922 to 24 percent by 1929. By 1927, 98 percent of the population paid no income tax. He also eliminated a number of “nuisance” taxes, such as those on cars and theater tickets.

Coolidge met with his budget director, Herbert Mayhew Lord from Rockland, Maine, 202 times to comb through the budget again and again, reducing it from $5.1 billion in 1921 to $3.3 in 1929. The pair relentlessly worked their way from the big-ticket items down to the cheese-parings.

For me, Lord’s masterpiece was the decree restricting civil servants to one pencil at a time. They had to turn in the stub to get a new one. This may not have saved much money, but it set the right tone.

LePage clearly shares Coolidge’s understanding of an enduring problem at all levels of government: “It is necessary to watch people in Washington all the time to keep them from unnecessary expenditure of money. They have all lived off the national government so long in that city that they are inclined to regard any sort of employment as a Christmas tree, and if we are not careful, they will run up a big expense bill on us.”

The fact that Coolidge kept a copy of the Constitution on his bedside table also must appeal to our governor. I don’t know what he keeps at his bedside, but I do know that he has read the Federalist Papers. Any elected official who takes his or her oath to uphold the Constitution seriously should do the same. I doubt that many have read the Constitution itself.

John Frary, of Farmington, is a retired professor and former Republican candidate for Congress.

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