The Private Mr. Coolidge
There is a story that at some point, Calvin Coolidge was asked what his hobbies were. He replied, “I run for office.”
Throughout his youth, there is no indication that he ever participated in sports or athletics of any kind. Nor did he have hobbies or pastimes. Not cards or billiards or chess. Not stamps or coins. Once his schooling was over, he seldom read books for pleasure. He did not draw, paint or play a musical instrument. He seldom attended the theater or concerts or “flicker” shows.
He read his newspapers and had a cigar. Sometimes he took a nap.
Presidents and Leisure
The Presidency of itself is a stressful job, and even long-ago Presidents felt the strains and constraints, and valued their rare opportunities to work off excess tensions or even just relax.
Some enjoyed a ride in the countryside – if they got the chance. Some reveled in quiet reading. Many 20th century Presidents enjoyed golf.
Only the stoic James Knox Polk seems to have considered recreation or pleasure as “sinful,” believing his duty was to work continuously. He paid the price, dying at only 53, just months after leaving office. It was said he died from overwork.
Fishing was a popular recreation for several Presidents.
Herbert Hoover loved fishing since boyhood, and while he engaged in deep sea excursions periodically, preferred fresh water angling. His late-in-life good buddy Harry Truman liked fishing from a boat, preferably in Key West, Florida.
But by and large, fishing, being a solitary sport (even among companions), it is one that can be enjoyed early on, with only a branch, a string and a makeshift hairpin-hook. It was some part of nearly all early presidential childhoods.
President Coolidge and Colonel Starling
Calvin Coolidge became president suddenly with the death of Warren Harding (who had also been known to do a little fishing from time to time).
The new POTUS inherited a fine house-with-staff and servants, and a laconic disposition. He also inherited Colonel Edmund W. Starling, his secret service “escort.”
From the first, the POTUS and the Colonel (an honorary title) seemed to hit it off well. Col. Starling later wrote that the New England Congregationalist and the Kentucky Baptist seemed to have a tacit understanding of each other.
From the outset, Coolidge engaged in a mild activity: taking an early morning walk – or more likely a stroll. He enjoyed window-shopping in downtown Washington. Sometimes he went into the shops. Starling went with him.
But a year after taking office, the President’s 16-year-old son died, and it hit Coolidge extremely hard. Some say he was never the same. Not long after, Coolidge’s elderly father died, and the family vacations to the Vermont farm were no longer warranted – or pleasurable.
Col. Starling sincerely liked “Silent Cal,” who was becoming even more silent. He worried about his boss, and believed some pleasant leisure activity would be beneficial. Coolidge was a hard sell, but Starling, a lifelong fisherman, persisted. Finally the President consented to a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in New York – to give the rod and reel a whirl.
Coolidge: Trout Fisherman
In 1926, Calvin Coolidge was 53, and knew nothing about fishing. On the first day of his new adventure, he showed up in a suit, a shirt with a celluloid collar, a tie, gloves, a derby hat – and waders. A secret serviceman baited his hook. They would always bait his hook and unhook his catch. Coolidge never touched a fish.
Beginner’s luck (or a well-stocked stream) must never be discounted – and CC caught a 5-pounder the first day – and was hooked! He decided he liked it, and for the rest of his presidency, fishing was part of the family vacation. It was the 1920s, booming and roaring and filled with pop culture as we know it. Of course reporters were on hand for the vacations!
Historian Paul Boller tells that on one excursion to Wisconsin, the President was seen returning to his fishing lodge with a string of five good sized fish. When photographed and questioned by a reporter, Coolidge said they were trout. When questioned further as to what kind of flies he had used, the POTUS said that he used worms on a hook.
It made the newspapers.
Avid fishermen who read the newspaper story couldn’t believe their eyes! Trout? The New York World editorialized: “Worms! Words fail. Comment is useless.” Idaho Senator William Borah insisted that it was impossible! It must have been catfish. But if they were indeed trout, they would have to be imbeciles! “No self-respecting trout goes after worms!” Missouri Senator James Reed added that “any trout that will lie on the bottom of a lake and bite a worm is …degenerate!”
Dozens of fishing mavens across the country sent the president letters offering advice – or scorn – for his fishing abilities. Some sent him flies.
Meanwhile, in 1928, when Herbert Hoover, an seasoned and experienced fisherman, was campaigning for Coolidge’s position, he heard from a fellow angler who promised to vote for him if he fished for trout with the fly. “But if you use dirty worms like Cal, goodbye!”
A Brief Epilogue
Coolidge retired from the presidency in March, 1929, and only lived four more years. He was never known to go fishing again. Perhaps there was no one to bait his hook.
Boller, Paul Jr., – Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play from George Washington to George W. Bush – Harcourt, Inc,., 2007
Lathem, Edward Connery – Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth – Stephen Greene Press, 1960
Sugrue, Thomas & Starling, Col. Edmund W. – Starling of the White House – Peoples Book Club, 1946
White, William Allen – A Puritan in Babylon – Macmillan – 1938