President Obama: When in Cuba, don’t do what Coolidge did

In this handout from Paramount News/Pictures, President Calvin Coolidge and President Gerardo Machado of Cuba, ride in the back of a car in Cuba, Jan. 17, 1928.
In this handout from Paramount News/Pictures, President Calvin Coolidge and President Gerardo Machado of Cuba, ride in the back of a car in Cuba, Jan. 17, 1928. AP Photo/Paramount News

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.

In Coolidge’s case, he was trying to calm down growing Cuban unhappiness over high U.S. sugar tariffs that were crippling the island’s economy and to defuse widespread Latin American criticism of American military interventions in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Hoping to assuage Latin leaders, Coolidge (who aside from a week’s honeymoon in Canada had never set foot outside the United States) decided to attend a meeting of the Pan American Union — an ancestor of the Organization of American States — in Havana in mid-January 1928.

Even more importantly, though, Coolidge intended to use the meeting to jump-start his campaign for a worldwide treaty renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. The U.S. Senate had refused to approve American participation in the League of Nations eight years earlier, but Coolidge thought that by simply concentrating on banning war without creating an international bureaucracy as part of the package, he might win approval.

Ultimately, he bombed on everything. Although Coolidge promised Cuban leader Gerardo Machado lower tariffs, that never happened — in fact, within a couple of years, the taxes on imported sugar were raised and the island’s good will toward the United States for its help in overthrowing Spanish rule began to leak away. And efforts to placate the rest of Latin America over U.S. interventions never really got under way because Coolidge ordered U.S. Marines back into Nicaragua just before departing to Havana.

Coolidge’s worldwide peace treaty, eventually known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, was eventually approved by more than five dozen countries. That did not stop anybody from plunging into World War II a decade later, making Kellogg-Briand possibly the most useless act of diplomacy in world history.

“I’m not sure how much of his heart was in any of this,” says historian Amity Shlaes, author of the 2013 biography Coolidge. “He did it all in a kind of wistful mode, the sort of thing you do when something is in accord with your principles but you don’t get a lot of joy in it. Coolidge didn’t feel well — he thought the presidency was wearing him down, but actually he had heart disease. And he was feeling the kind of loneliness that surrounds a president when everybody realizes he’s not going to be president much longer and starts kissing up to the new guy.”

If Coolidge wasn’t having fun, though, everybody else in the massive presidential party (it took eight U.S. naval vessels to haul them all to Havana from Key West) certainly was. The partying began when the president’s train from Washington arrived in Florida and everybody discovered that, while the rest of America was locked down for Prohibition, Key West was, well, Key West.

Its bars weren’t even speakeasies that required a secret knock or password, but wide-open saloons. The train arrived at 10 p.m., and reporters and government officials were still straggling back to their sleeping cars from Duval Street at 6 a.m. Their drunken singing often turned, momentarily, into terrified shrieks as they slipped under their bedcovers, only to learn they’d been booby-trapped with Key lime pies by earlier arrivals in acts of bonhomous terrorism. At least one reporter was so thoroughly drunk that he fell into the ocean while boarding his ship the next morning.

By all accounts, the reception awaiting Coolidge in Havana was flat-out nuts. A crowd estimated at 200,000 turned out to greet the president as a small boat carried him ashore from the USS Texas. (If anybody from either government found it inauspicious that the Texas anchored at the exact spot where the American battleship Maine had exploded 30 years earlier, launching the Spanish-American War, they didn’t mention it.) The cheering throng jammed the streets so completely that it took Coolidge’s motorcade an hour to travel the few blocks from the harbor to the presidential palace, where Machado had cleared out three entire floors for the American president and his wife.

Even the ordinarily austere face of Coolidge cracked into a smile at the crowd’s roar, and he began smiling and waving back — particularly at a group of seven or eight flashily dressed and gaudily made-up young women and their flag-waving chaperone, instantly recognizable to everybody but the president as professional representatives of a local whorehouse. When the stricken Coolidge realized who they were, he shrank back in his seat but soon had to summon an aide to sit beside him and bat away all the roses being thrown from the crowd.

Coolidge was tucked away in the palace by 5:30 p.m., which freed reporters to practice investigative journalism at Havana’s bars. Among their findings: Machado’s henchmen had warned tavernkeepers to take down pictures of Coolidge in deference to the delicate subject of Prohibition, though they were allowed to keep their posters of pilot Charles Lindbergh, who was along on the trip.

It seems clear from some of the stories that appeared in U.S. newspapers the next morning that many of the reporters were seriously under the influence even before filing their stories early in the evening. Try to untangle this sentence from the New York Times in a story on the dress code for Cuban officials: “Without a pair of gray spats to be found in all Havana, much perturbation prevailed until the investigators ascertained that it was a false alarm.”

As the evening wore on, they were joined by American officials traveling with the president who were enthralled by the opportunity to drink legally and openly for the first time since Prohibition took effect eight years earlier. As alcohol intake reached prodigious proportions, senior Havana police officials arrived with instructions to make the gringos feel welcome.

“Quite a party of us trooped off to see the sights, not all of which were culturally elevating,” recounted New York Herald Tribune reporter Beverly Smith Jr., the reporter who would finally blow the whistle on the trip in a Saturday Evening Post story 30 years later. Further excitement was added by the acerbic columnist H.L. Mencken, covering the visit, who began introducing himself to Cubans, deadpan, as America’s “unofficial ambassador of ill will.”

To cap it all, members of the traveling party began spreading the word through the dive bars that a reporter from New England who looked like Coolidge really was the president, which inspired widespread awe and numerous offers to buy drinks from the Cubans. “I suspect that there are still some older Havanans,” Smith wrote in 1959, “who believe that Cal, outside office hours, was a gay dog.” He was presumably using “gay dog” in the 1928 sense of the term — or else things really got out of hand.

Twenty-four hours later, after Coolidge had delivered his speech, visited Machado’s farm just south of Havana and taken in a jai alai match, it was time to get back on the ships. Gloomy at the prospect of returning to Prohibition, the presidential party was delighted to get the word that nobody, even the reporters, would have to be cleared by U.S. Customs in Key West.

Local liquor dealers, drawn by the scent of manic alcoholic temptation, set up shop in the Havana hotel lobby. Nearly everybody was loading up half-gallon bottles of rum. Some people even bought extra suitcases to fill with booze; reporters with smaller expense accounts threw out their clothing instead to make room for rum. It was all loaded onto the ships by winking U.S. Marines, leading many to wonder who had approved the massive smuggling operation. “Was it, incredibly, Calvin himself, out of that quirky humor which was supposed to lurk behind the vinegary Vermont visage?” reporter Smith wondered.

No answer was forthcoming. But perhaps history has been unfair to Coolidge. There is, after all, a venerable anecdote about the president touring an experimental U.S. governmental farm with his wife. When she reached the chicken yard, she noticed with interest a rooster frantically copulating with a hen. “How often does he do that?” she asked one of the farmhands. Informed that it was dozens of times a day, she instructed the farmhand, “Tell the president that when he comes by.”

The farmhand did, to which the president asked, “Same hen every time?” No, a different one each time, the farmhand replied, to which the president retorted: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

P.S.: Coolidge biographer Shlaes says she tried like crazy to find evidence to support the chicken anecdote. “I did not find evidence it was true,” she added. Sadly.