Calvin Coolidge Persisted, in Deed If Not in Word

June 12 (Bloomberg) — The White House messed up its history. That's the contention of critics who pointed to references recently appended to the biography pages of past presidents on the White House website.

Scholars of Calvin Coolidge, the president who is our focus, found an error. The Coolidge "Did You Know?" item says that "On Feb. 22, 1924, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to make a public radio address to the American people."

Alas, Coolidge was not the first, as a retired archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration, Jerry L. Wallace, noted in an e-mail to us. The first chief executive to deliver a radio address was Warren G. Harding, whose dedication of the Lincoln Memorial was carried over the airwaves on May 30, 1922.

What the Barack Obama White House did was introduce its own comments and facts to the extant biographies of the presidents on the White House pages. Some commentators such as Seth Mandel at Contentions, the Commentary magazine blog, interpret the effort to draw such parallels as an intrusion on past presidents. Mandel sees the Obama administration comments as evidence that the president, like many of his young devotees, doesn't "have much memory of the political world before the arrival of The One." You can agree or disagree with this criticism.

Unsettled History

The real story here is not the specific Coolidge error or whether you like the new White House comments. It is that accurate history is becoming much harder to deliver than it used to be. The Internet and databases have raised the bar for all writing on history. Your authors, both students of Coolidge, discovered this firsthand in researching an iconic quote long attributed to Silent Cal.

Coolidge endured severe setbacks in life. Yet he persevered. The Coolidge quotation that captures that perseverance best was printed in a pamphlet in the 1930s by New York Life Insurance Co., where the 30th president served as a director:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and will always solve the problem of the human race."

To say this quotation is loved is an understatement. Historians have routinely slammed anyone who dared suggest it was not uttered by Coolidge. In the 1990s, the "Dear Abby" advice column attributed the quotation to Ray Kroc, the wizard behind McDonald's. It was promptly corrected by an authority: the late Lawrence Wikander, curator of the Coolidge Memorial Room at the Forbes Library in Coolidge's adult hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts.

Abby published Wikander's note in her column: "After Coolidge retired from public life, he served as a director of the New York Life Insurance Co., and his inspirational statement was distributed to that company's agents in the 1930s."

"Persistence" has appeared in anthology after anthology down the decades, including the Yale Book of Quotations (page 173, 2006), William Safire's book "Good Advice," and one of your authors' books, "Silent Cal's Almanack." Your other author has also quoted it.

But we found evidence that suggests the quotation was probably not Coolidge's. The discovery occurs now because of technology, specifically the advent of searchable PDF files.

Quotation's Trail

Delve into obscure trade journals or regional newspapers and you'll find "persistence" cited in the Middletown (New York) Daily Times Press in November 1914 — again without credit. In 1910, when Coolidge was still a very junior politician, "persistence" was published in the Locomotive Engineers' Monthly Journal and the Crockery and Glass Journal without any attribution.

In 1956, Norman Vincent Peale wrote that a Chicago real estate mogul, Arthur Rubloff, hung "persistence" on his wall, believing it to be an old Arabic verse.

It remains conceivable that Coolidge did write "persistence," perhaps as a very young Northampton Republican. But it's doubtful. It is also doubtful that he intentionally plagiarized. Coolidge wrote his own speeches much of the time and removed one he hadn't written from a collection to be published, probably because it was not his.

The more likely sequence was that Coolidge cited "persistence," the quote was attributed to him and he did not notice. The only sure thing one can say at this point about Coolidge and "persistence" is that our article is not definitive. It is an update. More to come.

The same tentativeness holds for the White House website, which will doubtless see updates; the little bullets that might be wrong will be corrected far faster than they would have been in the days before, say, the arrival of the database ProQuest, or before Twitter, which alerts everyone to mistakes. All history is accelerating.

The historian Pieter Geyl called history "an argument without end" and said "that is why we love it so." Because of technology, this old argument can only become more accurate. Who can't love that? The best step for historians is to check and recheck, then hunt some more. And then, as someone said, "press on."

(Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of the forthcoming "Coolidge"; David Pietrusza is the author of "Silent Cal's Almanack." The opinions expressed are their own.)

© Copyright 2012 Bloomberg

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