What was the State Fair like 100 years ago? Sept. 6, 1922, was State Pioneers' Day. Over 500 pioneers and family members showed up, and the morning paper said they expected Uncle John Dabney, of Taylors Falls, Minn. He was 103. Grandmother Truax, a spry 101, was due, as well. Neither showed up.
But Cal did.
The vice president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, appeared at an event that might have scarred him so profoundly it altered his entire public persona. But we'll get to that in a bit.
He wasn't the first veep to appear at the fair. Teddy Roosevelt brought his sunny, squinty mug to the fair in 1901, and spoke a phrase that entered the pantheon of Famous Utterances: "Speak softly, and eat something on a big stick."
Wait; that's not right. But it was something like that, and everyone knew what he meant — be moderate in your dealings with other nations, in hopes of solving things by civil means, but failing that, be prepared to wallop the other guy. It's certainly better than "Scream your head off at the other dude, and then when he's all freaking out, get out two big sticks, one in each hand, and start wailin' on him."
On the other hand, if you're sitting down for negotiations, and you're speaking in calm, reasoned tones, someone is going to notice that you've brought a stick. Especially if it's a big stick. Maybe you smuggled it in somehow, slid into a pants leg. Perhaps after TR's speech, they started patting down soft-spoken people for big sticks, and the next few years there were signs that said, "Big sticks are prohibited from the premises," or "This is a stick-free zone."
It's astonishing that there are no food vendors that capitalize on this speech and sell Bully Braised Bull Moose on a Big Stick.
Anyway. TR was out of the picture by 1922; Warren Harding was president. Coolidge was dispatched to regale fairgoers with the accomplishments of the administration. Two problems: Many people in the bleachers were there for the auto races, not some guy droning on about politics. And it was about 98 degrees.
Nowadays, that's a brutal temp for the fair, but imagine you're wearing a suit. No breeze. No little battery-operated fans. The fellas around you probably didn't use deodorant and hadn't sent their shirts to the cleaners since June. So it's nuclear-hot, everyone's irritated, and it smells like a junior high locker room.
Cal starts. An indication of the audience's mood can be deduced from the Minneapolis Star's account:
"He paused occasionally for applause, but the crowds that were sweltering in the stands declined to take their cue from the enthusiasm of members of the vice president's personal party, and remained silent."
He went on. And on. Another 15 minutes. Then came the catcalls. The whistles, the hoots, the boos. They'd die down, Cal would resume, then the catcalls again. Finally came the call of one desperate man, speaking for the multitudes:
"Let's go on with the races!" And the crowd erupted.
I don't like heckling, and I think we should respect our elected officials. But there's also something purely American about a guy who stands up and shouts, "Can you wind it up here, pal? We want to see fast cars go around and around!" when that's the obvious mood of The People.
Coolidge kept talking. The governor, said the Star, mopped his forehead and fidgeted, and "made a gesture which Mr. Coolidge saw." You can imagine. He cut to the last page and attempted to declaim its conclusions over the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
It was a minor scandal.
The Minneapolis Journal quoted a local who called it a "disgrace to the state." Another said the disturbance was limited to some "boys" and "smart Alecks." Granville S. Pease, "pastor of Minnesota newspapermen," blamed Coolidge, calling the audience's reaction "wholly deserved," citing the vice president's "failure to sympathize with the people waiting out there and sweltering in the sun."
In the Minneapolis Tribune, Mrs. J.E. Rounds, a VIP on the state's women's club scene, played the hell-in-a-handbasket card: "The demonstration, to my mind, reflects the general wave of lawlessness — the utter disregard for law and public officials." Lady, you ain't heard nothin' yet, as the man said.
Coolidge was exceedingly gracious about the event, and was quoted in the Tribune as saying that everyone had been "patiently waiting for the races," and in general, "I could not have asked for a better hearing on such a day." Such a day being over 90 degrees, might be what he meant.
Within a year, Harding died, and Coolidge ascended. He would win two more elections, and preside over the Jazz Age boom. But how is he remembered in the popular culture, if he is remembered at all?
A notably taciturn man. Concise. A tidy epigram here, a wordless nod there. Nothing like the usual empty huffing blather of the standard-issue pol.
Perhaps the State Fair event made an impression. If he hadn't been booed and hooted at, he might not have switched to Silent Cal Mode.
By the way, the races were great. Miss Lillian Boyer drove her car around the track five times, then got out of the car and climbed on a rope ladder suspended from an airplane following her car, and ascended into the heavens to the delight of the crowd.
Now, if Cal had done that, his appearance might have gone over a bit better.