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05/27/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

Brevity and Eloquence -- Lessons From Calvin

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On May 1, the U.S. Mint released the latest of its presidential commemorative dollar coins, this one celebrating our famously taciturn 30th president, Calvin Coolidge. Actually, Silent Cal wasn't all that silent. He minted his public speaking skills in college debates where he opposed William Jennings Bryan's proposal for taking the U.S. off the gold standard. And he held more presidential press conferences (520!) than any president before or since.

Those were among the hat-tips to Coolidge offered at an event a few weeks ago sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation to celebrate the coinage. A hundred or so people gathered at the Union League Club, that most stalwart of Republican venues in New York City, to hear Steve Forbes and some other "sound money" advocates ring the praises of a president who steered the nation to one of its greatest eras of prosperity.

Coolidge, of course, is not lacking for detractors today -- those who believe his policies set the stage for the economic catastrophes that followed his time in office (1923-1929). I'm among those who, on the contrary, believe he was among our best presidents, one who governed with sober determination to foster new industries, such as flight and radio; kept taxes low; and created real prosperity. The event, naturally, was a stage for Coolidge enthusiasts, beginning with his biographer Amity Shlaes.

But that isn't why I bring him up.

Rather, Coolidge offers a lesson for today's garrulous age in how to make words count. That's the point of what is surely the most famous, though probably apocryphal, Coolidge anecdote. The story goes that a Washington matron teased him at a dinner party by saying she had made a bet that she could get more than two words out of him. He responded, "You lose."

Would that college students and professors today had an ounce of his brevity and a gram of his wit. Our colleges do some things well, some poorly, and some hardly at all. Teaching students how to speak is generally in that last category. Of course, some students train to be actors and some get involved in formal competitions such as debate where they learn some disciplined use of voice. But on the whole, we value "natural expression" in students and do little to shape it.

Good speaking, like good writing, however, doesn't just happen. It takes intelligence, hard work, and lots of practice.

A few weeks after the Coolidge event, one of the short speeches presented that evening is stuck in my head: perhaps as perfect an example of a short talk -- a toast actually -- as I've heard in American life in many years, and all the more effective because the occasion was a low-key somewhat out-the-way event. Perhaps a coin flip of fate landed heads that night but in any case I got to hear James Grant, a monetary policy expert and editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, present a 13-minute talk that was perfectly tuned to the moment, erudite, witty, playful toward the audience, relaxed, and eloquent.

That it was also an argument on a matter that most of us find abstruse -- the monetary policy of a bygone age -- made no difference. Mr. Grant was captivating from his opening -- "The U.S. Mint has struck a base metal coin for a precious metal president," to his toast at the end, where -- having failed to secure a flute of champagne from one of the passing waiters --toasted Coolidge instead with an appropriately frugal imaginary glass.

The reader may assess for himself. Mr. Grant appears in this video at 15:03 and continues to 28:34. Note the calm fluidity of the transitions. He mentions the increase in the average American lifespan since Coolidge's day, from 60 years in 1927 to "fast closing in today on 80," which sets up, "Although we live longer, our money seems to die younger." He then builds out the metaphor, "The Founders' money, gold and silver, was imperishable. We Modernists have put in place a policy of monetary euthanasia."

I have nothing invested in the debate over the gold standard or the monetary causes of inflation, any more than I have in Olympic ice skating, but I appreciate a double axel jump in either case. Mr. Grant landed cleanly.

Part of good speaking is knowing when to revel in the details and when to pull back to the big picture. The speaker in this case zoomed in for details about the new Coolidge coin: 8.1 grams, "85 and a half percent of copper, 6 percent of zinc, 3 and a half percent of manganese and 2 percent of nickel," making the intrinsic value of the coin "exactly 5.29 cents." And then back to the big picture: "American ingenuity is partially restoring the purchasing power lost through American central banking."

A good speaker connects to the place he is speaking: "In 1927, the year that Charles Lindbergh flew from a shopping center on Long Island, Roosevelt Field--that was a Barney's, right, or something." He weaves in images that evoke the time he speaks of: "In that year $20 could buy a very good slide rule."

And a good speaker smoothly incorporates sight and sound. Grant asks his audience at one point if they know where the expression "sound money" came from? He then pulls out a $20 gold piece and drops it on the lectern where it "rings true."

This is a speech of many small excellences rather than one large point. Grant is not Henry V rallying his troops at Agincourt, nor is he Roosevelt addressing Congress after Pearl Harbor. Good speaking doesn't require momentous occasions. It does require a sense of decorum. To say the right thing in the right way at the right time probably takes a balance of humility and pride: humility in matching your words to the moment, pride in taking care to find the right words.

This isn't something beyond our capacity to teach. Coolidge learned it; so did Mr. Grant. And anyone who goes fishing in YouTube or TED Talks can find thousands of videos of young people taking exuberant pleasure in finding clever ways to say things. Colleges need to connect with that energy and ingenuity, and not leave it to the festivities of numismatists and admirers of Warren G. Harding's successor to have all the fun.

The Union League Club, where Mr. Grant spoke, has a foyer filled with class-fronted cabinets showcasing 14,000-some toy soldiers arrayed for make-believe battles. They are at once totally mute and, in the mind's ear, clamorous. And in that combination they remind me of legions of today's students who live lives filled with noise but don't really know how to speak. We owe them something better.

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