In reading Amity Shlaes’ marvelous biography of Calvin Coolidge, I was struck by a brief poem written by Coolidge’s son, Calvin Jr., during his father’s stint as vice president to Warren Harding.
Coolidge was having a hard time adapting to life in Washington, ridiculed for a variety of things, and struggling to remain supportive of an administration which, as Shlaes puts it, boasted “a temperament wilder than his own.” As one glimpse into these matters, Coolidge’s close friend, Frank Stearns, had sent him a letter expressing his sympathies. “It makes me a little sick at heart that you should not get more comfort out of your success,” Stearns wrote. A sample of Coolidge’s reply: “I do not think you have any comprehension of what people do to me.”
“The price of their status, having it or lacking it, was becoming clear to all the Coolidges,” Shlaes explains.
Indeed, it seems as though it was particularly clear to the 14-year-old Calvin Jr., who penned the following poem under the title, “Success”:
Success, O magic word, Success!
How much you mean to happiness
Men seek you over e’ery land,
But scanty few have you in hand.
Men slave for you and with life pay
If they can clutch you for one day
You are the subject of their prayers
To you they give their thoughts and cares
Men say untruths for you alone
And by foul means you’re called their own
Yet rest not till their dying day
Because they grasped you in such way.
The culture and climate in Washington has surely gotten worse in the years since. The grappling, the game-playing, the constant quests for power, privilege, and special protections. And although Calvin Jr. was to suffer a fatal illness just two years later, his father continued pursuing a model of success quite contrary to the idol his son once decried — distinct in 1920s Washington, and altogether unfamiliar today.
We should hope to grasp in such a way, calmly and carefully, but always with the long-term vision of the other as our primary aim, promoting the things of the spirit in turn.