The Calvin Coolidge wit was once described as ‘sharp and cold as a frost-etching on a windowpane.’
Were they laughing at the Calvin Coolidge wit? Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
The Calvin Coolidge Wit
Once, at a dinner party, the woman sitting next to him said she bet she could get more than two words out of him. Coolidge then famously responded: “You lose.”
In 1925, someone asked how it felt to be president of the United States. “Well,” he said, “You got to be mighty careful.”
Soon after Calvin Coolidge took office, he received his first paycheck, which delivered a messenger from the Treasury Department. Coolidge solemnly told him, “Call again.”
His supporter Frank Stearns, son of department store mogul R.H. Stearns, thought Coolidge probably inherited his brevity from his father. As an example, John Coolidge once received an invitation to attend a presidential event. He replied:
Calvin, Jr., probably inherited the Calvin Coolidge wit. On the morning after his father took the oath of office as president in Plymouth Notch, Vt., he went to work bundling tobacco.
One of his co-workers said, “If my father were president, I wouldn’t be working in a tobacco field. Calvin replied, “If my father were your father you would.”
Calvin, Jr., died at 16 during his father’s presidency. His death caused Calvin Coolidge to fall into a deep depression. Even as president he suffered from intense social anxiety, and his son’s death exacerbated the problem.
The vibrant, outgoing Grace Coolidge filled in her husband’s many silences.
She often told stories about the Calvin Coolidge wit.
On their return from their honeymoon. Coolidge handed her an old brown bag filled with 52 pairs of socks with holes in them. She asked him if he married her just to get his socks mended.
He told her, “No, but I find it might handy.”
Once as first lady, she and the president visited a government farm on separate tours. She came to the chicken yard and showed some interest in a prize rooster. The farmer told her the rooster could mate several times a day.
Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the president when he comes by.”
The farmer told the president. Coolidge asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply: “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.”
Coolidge said, “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
Arthur Cheney Train, who created the fictional character Ephraim Tutt, didn’t admire the Calvin Coolidge wit.
“He had a perverse streak that led him to do and say eccentric things which he did not intend to be funny at all,” wrote Train. Once in a while, for example, Coolidge would press all the buttons on his desk, causing bells to ring all over the White House and all the servants to come running — for the fun of it.
A Good Angleworm
As a student at Amherst College, he took his meals in a boardinghouse with his friend Dwight Morrow, whose daughter would marry Charles Lindbergh. Morrow said the landlady often served hash, which caused Coolidge to turn serious.
The landlady had a dog and a cat, Morrow said. Coolidge would ask “Where’s the dog?” and the dog would be brought in. Then he’d ask “Where’s the cat?” and the cat would be brought in.
Only then would he eat the hash.
As president, he once presided over a tree-planting ceremony. He turned back the soil with a golden trowel, the Army and Navy bands stood waiting on cue, the crowd quietly anticipated Coolidge’s words.
The president stood silent until Supreme Court Chief Justice William Taft said, “Please say something.” Coolidge finally replied, “That’s a good angleworm.”
The Soul of Wit
Massachusetts Gov. Channing Cox, Coolidge’s former lieutenant governor, visited him at the White House. He complained that back home in Massachusetts he always had to see people and fought all the time to get some real work done.
Coolidge told him, “Channing, the trouble is you talk back.”
Coolidge once observed that what he didn’t say never hurt him.
At one White House press conference, reporters fired questions at him.
“Have you anything to say about Prohibition?”
“Have you anything to say about the World Court?”
“About the farm situation?”
“About the forthcoming senatorial campaign?”
Then as the reporters filed out of the room, Calvin Coolidge finally called out, “And don’t quote me.”
This story was updated in 2020.