On this July 4, I find myself thinking about the long run-up to the national elections that will happen in November 2024. As trial balloons are floated, exploratory committees are formed, and candidacies are announced, I’m reminded of the long-ago warning from Calvin Coolidge that voters should encourage those whose candidacy is based on what seems like an agreeable and/or entertaining personality, but should instead focus on character, ability and experience.
The background here is that Warren G. Harding was elected President of the United States in the 1920 election, with Calvin Coolidge as his Vice President. When Harding died in 1923, Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, and then won the 1924 election, before deciding against running again in 1928. From 1930-31, Coolidge wrote a series of short “Dispatches” published in newspapers around the country under the headline “Calvin Coolidge Says.” Here’s his dispatch for October 8, 1930, in the run-up to Election Day that year:
If self-government is to continue to be a success the voters must take their duties seriously. As the relations of the government in both our political and economic life become increasingly intricate, the necessary qualifications for discharging the functions of high office must be correspondingly raised. Administration and legislation are becoming more and more an exact science. It is no longer possible to expect the best results from men and women without previous training in public activities.
For important political service the three qualifications necessary are character, ability and experience. Some of our voters are not giving sufficient consideration to these requirements. They are often supporting candidates whose greatest appeal is that they are good fellows. An agreeable personality is a fine quality, but it is not enough to administer a great office. It is vain to support office seekers who smile, if it results in electing officeholders who are not competent.
The government cannot be run successfully by substituting the power of entertainment for the power of accomplishment. The essential quality for the voters to require in their choice of candidates is capacity for public service.
When I hear people talk about their voting choices these days, they often emphasize either the extent to which they agree with the candidate on certain issues, or disagree with the opposing candidate, or whether they feel as if their preferred candidate is “on their side” in some sense. These sorts of issues matter, of course. But the combination of “character, ability, and experience” matter, too. I have a strong preference for candidates who do the hard work of learning subjects in depth, reading the background materials personally, listening to a broad array of their constituents, running a competent group of staffers, negotiating with those who disagree, and putting in the time to craft the details of legislation that can actually work. By comparison, whether the candidate can hire public relations staff to write up some good zingers for social media consumption doesn’t have much to do with the actual practice of public service.