No matter what Barack Obama does in Havana next month, his visit just isn’t going to measure up to the one Calvin Coolidge made in 1928. Yeah, that Coolidge, the guy remembered as Silent Cal when he’s remembered at all, the one a reporter once wrote had the perpetual expression of “one who had been weaned on a pickle.”
His visit to Cuba — the last one by an American president — was nonetheless a festival of drunken debauchery, inebriated idiocy, salacious smuggling and even unnatural acts with Key lime pies. The full story didn’t emerge for 30 years, when a reporter finally spilled the beans on a tale with “elements of pageantry, drama, comedy and farce; of ponderous dignity and unseemly revelry; of silk-hatted diplomacy with a dash of dipsomania.”
Lest President Obama get the wrong idea of what’s expected of U.S. leaders when visiting Cuba, we should probably note at this point that President Coolidge himself did not partake (well, there was an incident with hookers that we’ll get back to, but mostly) of the depravity.
Though some Cubans thought they saw the president himself slinking through Havana’s back-alley dives, incongruously wearing a top hat, they were mistaken, victims of a practical-joke impression of Coolidge by an American reporter who resembled the president. And you thought the mainstream media was rough on presidents these days.
But we’re getting ahead of the story. Until Obama announced a couple of weeks ago that he was going to Cuba, practically nobody remembered Coolidge’s 1928 trip. Yet at the time, it was a big, big deal, and even had parallels to today. Coolidge, too, was a lame-duck president looking to cap his stay in the White House with a signature foreign-policy achievement.