O CALVIN, O CALVIN
A president so sour and uncommunicative—
“He looks as though he has been weaned
on a pickle,” quipped Alice Longsworth,
eldest daughter of rough swinging
Teddy Roosevelt, who built the first
White House tennis court,
a rolled dirt affair costing $2000
and sitting where presidents now serve
in the full-moon obtrusion that has
come to symbolize the presidency.
The court lasted only seven years
before Howard Taft, who much preferred
golf, ploughed it under (at 300 pounds,
he could barely move). The second court
lasted a good deal longer: long enough
for the sons of “Silent Cal”—a man,
went the joke, of two words (“You lose”)—
to play tennis on it; long enough
for one of them, Calvin Junior,
to develop a blister on his big toe—
he should have been wearing socks;
long enough for the infection to travel
throughout his body, as though by train,
the way his father had from Vermont
upon hearing of Warren Harding’s death.
What a great country the human form is—
and its capital the little mount heart….
I try to picture Calvin Senior in the White
House garden: helpless, distraught, desperate
to do something, anything really, as his son
begins to fade. And so, he catches a rabbit
and brings it to Calvin Junior’s room.
Perhaps death, that other wordless thing,
can be distracted; perhaps it can even
be delighted. The animal quivers;
its delicate eyes beg for mercy. If love
is a magician, then maybe it can pull
a sixteen-year-old boy from the day’s dark
top hat. He’d send in the navy if he could.
The U.S.S. Penicillin! It isn’t even in dry-dock
yet. When Calvin Junior succumbs, Calvin
Senior is disconsolate, stroking his namesake’s
forehead and sobbing in public. As one reporter
will put it, “He wept unafraid, unashamed.”
He is like a shirt turned inside out—
all of the stitching is now apparent.
He’ll wear a black armband for months,
heraldic emblem of an effusive woe.
He’ll renounce presidential pomp,
experiencing what psychologists call
a dysphoric mood or major depressive
episode. The Resolute Desk, like the ship
from which it came, stuck in Arctic ice:
congressmen and cabinet members
waddling like penguins around him.
Call it fatherly love winning out in loss,
a touching, if somewhat dire, paralysis—
not the failure that historians like
to speak of, not a dereliction of duty.
No, the scrupulous fulfillment of another,
more basic one. Governor of Grief!
Chief Executive of Sorrow! Few politicians
have the talent to move a bill through
committee in the underworld.
I honor you Abe Lincoln, yet I’ve had
enough of your nobility, prosecuting a war
despite your own depression
and the loss of Willie. Your will
appalls me. Get on your mule and ride
out of Washington. I want a man
who falls to the occasion, who plummets
completely; a man whom reason
abandons. You can’t have power and
a son—you can’t even have one of them
for long, Calvin Senior will conclude.
I’m partial to such thinking
and to the sport that underlies it.
His very chair is perched on Roosevelt’s
old base line. How the Hero of San Juan Hill
loved to peg the members of his tennis
cabinet! His volley like a Gatling gun.
Spiro Agnew, the future’s seedy kickback—
yes, time, the great developer, must pay
to play with lives—will bean his own
doubles partner, prompting Tricky Dick
to joke, “He ought to conduct diplomacy
in Cambodia with a racket!”
There’s always darkness in a leader’s strokes.
The past is like some terrible pollutant—
it gets into the groundwater;
the present is like an East European forest
where the animals have two heads
and the vegetables are radioactive.
For half a millennium, Richard III secretly
ruled England from beneath a London
carpark—think of him as directing traffic.
Whenever Calvin Senior looks out the window,
Calvin Junior is still hitting backhands.
He moves with the grace of a ghost,
unfettered by limbs or gravity.
Ralph James Savarese is the author of two books of prose, Reasonable People and See It Feelingly, and two books of poetry, Republican Fathers and When This Is Over. He teaches at Grinnell College.