Letter: What’s Up at the Coolidge Foundation?

To the Editor:

A recent news item from Vermont Public Radio reports that The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth, Vt., will pay Amity Shlaes, a New York-based conservative writer, annual compensation of $250,000 to serve as its CEO over the next four years. Seems a bit strange, particularly in view of the fact that the nonprofit foundation’s most recent tax filing reported annual revenue of just over $216,000.

With major support from the Connecticut-based Thomas W. Smith Foundation and undisclosed others, it appears the diminutive Coolidge Foundation seeks to extrapolate the memory of our circumspect 30th president into the national maelstrom of contemporary conservative politics. A possible analogy immediately comes to mind — former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s takeover of the Heritage Foundation last spring. As The New York Times recently put it, the former Washington think tank has become “more of a political organization feeding off the rising populism of the Tea Party movement.” As a result, many top policy experts and administrators have resigned.

Since its founding as a modest educational organization in 1960, the Coolidge Foundation has enjoyed notable bipartisan respect and support. Its charter sponsors included Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jacqueline B. Kennedy. Honorary trustees currently include former Democratic Vermont governors Howard Dean, Philip H. Hoff, Madeleine Kunin and Thomas P. Salmon, and current Democratic congressman Peter Welch. Honorary advisers include Jimmy Carter. Membership hovers around 1,000, including this “liberal” filmmaker.

With a rush of significant new funding, well in excess of customary revenues, it remains to be seen what use the foundation will now make of Calvin Coolidge’s legacy. Trustees, advisers and members should monitor the situation lest they unwittingly become associated with yet another right-wing political action committee.

John Karol