As a Vermonter, I try to have Cal Coolidge’s back. I do this because he was a Vermont-born United States President, because we graduated from the same college, and because he endured a horrific personal tragedy that some historians suggest shaped the last four of his five years in office. A month after he was nominated for President in 1924, his sixteen-year-old son died of blood poisoning, the result of a small cut on his toe he got playing tennis. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” Coolidge admitted years later in his autobiography. My sense is that I would have disagreed with him on a number of political issues, but I still feel a sense of pride when I am near the Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth.
And so I am writing today because a Vermonter needs to speak up for him. It is, in some ways, a small issue when we look at the carnage in Syria or the cataclysm in the Philippines or the complications that have dogged the launch of the HealthCare.gov web site. But I feel the Vermont-born President was insulted this autumn, and it’s a story that matters to me as a Vermonter – and as an Armenian-American.
Here is the “Reader’s Digest” condensed version. In the midst of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire systematically annihilated 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens, ethnically cleansing its Armenian minority from almost all of what today we call Turkey – and what once was Armenia. Three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed. Many United States citizens and Western Europeans were devastated by the carnage as it was occurring, and a newly organized American group, Near East Relief, jumped in hard to try and save the survivors of the Genocide, scattered now across the Middle East. The group’s humanitarian accomplishments – especially the 135 thousand orphans it cared for and helped to educate – are now legendary. It set the bar high for America’s subsequent efforts to respond to global crises and helped hone the accuracy – and cement the authority – of our nation’s moral compass.
And among the thanks to America from those orphans was a gift of a rug. It was woven by a group of Armenian orphan girls from the orphanage in Ghazir, Syria (now Lebanon) and designed to be worthy of an American President. It was. Four and a half million small knots. In the “Washington Post” this autumn, Philip Kennicott described it as “no mere juvenile effort, but a complicated, richly detailed work that would hold its own even in the largest and most ceremonial rooms.” It’s massive and beautiful. It was presented to President Coolidge on December 4, 1925. In his thank-you note, the President wrote, “The rug has a place of honor in the White House, where it will be a daily symbol of good-will on earth.” A year later, two of the Armenian girls who helped weave the rug went to the White House and met the Coolidges.
So, why today does President Coolidge need us? This autumn, Hagop Martin Deranian wrote a thorough and moving history of the carpet, “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.” Next month, the Smithsonian Museum was hoping to bring the book and the rug together for an event. It’s not happening. Why? The White House is refusing to release the rug – which has merely been in storage for the past twenty years. The White House is ignoring the request of 33 Democratic and Republican legislators in the House of Representatives to allow the carpet to be displayed at the Smithsonian. The rationale? The exhibit at the Smithsonian “was not viewed as commensurate with the rug’s historical significance,” said the National Security Council’s Laura Lucas Magnuson. Also, it was going to be too much work to ship it across town to the Smithsonian.
My sense is that the real reason is real politik: We do not want to antagonize Turkey, which, despite all historical evidence, continues to deny the reality of the Armenian Genocide – and that’s a shame. After all, the rug is a testimony to American ideals at their very best: to the way, once upon a time, we reached out across the seas in a humanitarian gesture commensurate with both our resources and our ideals. The rug is a reminder of the way, once upon a time, we rallied as a country to save a people.
That’s why I am thinking of Cal Coolidge this morning. If the White House could stand up for the orphans in 1925, it certainly can in 2013.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on November 24, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)