By Susan Smallheer Herald Staff
PLYMOUTH NOTCH — Talk about politics making strange bedfellows! Silent Bernie? A fiery Calvin Coolidge proclaiming himself a socialist, small 's'?
Stranger things have happened, and on Wednesday Vermont's junior Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., collected the Calvin Coolidge Award from the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, and it wasn't just because he brought the foundation a check for $196,000.
Sanders has a soft spot in his heart for Coolidge, one of Vermont's native-born presidents, and his birthplace in Plymouth Notch.
While Sanders is known for his outspokenness and criticism of big business, Coolidge, who was president from 1923 to 1929, was viewed as a conservative champion of business, although Sanders said Wednesday he thought Coolidge would have agreed with him about the $700 billion bailout of the United States' financial markets.
Sanders was supposed to have received the Coolidge award two weeks ago during the Coolidge Foundation's annual meeting, but the $700 billion bill kept him in Washington instead.
Sanders said he was a big fan of Coolidge's, even though they didn't share the same politics.
"He was a very down-to-earth guy, a straight shooter," Sanders said, "an honorable man. He had a philosophy of 'live and let live.' And I don't think he was a George Bush Republican. He was an honest conservative."
Charles Buell of Norwich, president of the foundation, told Sanders that when he announced Sanders' award at the annual meeting, there was a murmur in the audience at the Woodstock Country Club.
"I'm sure there were plenty of people smiling," Sanders said.
"I've been here a lot and it is one of the most beautiful places in the state of Vermont," said Sanders, shortly before he took a tour of the state historic site on a beautiful fall day. "This village says so much about Vermont and it's terribly important that we preserve it."
"We don't do a good job of educating our kids about history," Sanders said, noting that he would try and get more funding for the building project, which includes classrooms and conference halls for students to visit the site, year-round.
"Bring the kids here, make history come alive," Sanders said. "Count me in, I'm a big fan," he told the foundation officials.
"Thank you for your money," said Mimi Baird, head of the fund-raising committee of the foundation, which is trying to raise $4 million to build a new office for the foundation, as well as expand the visitor's center at the state President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site.
"It's not my grant," said Sanders, noting that the money came from the taxpayers of the United States. "It wasn't out of my pocket."
Sanders said he had been to Plymouth Notch dozens of times, and that he loved it and its portrayal of an older Vermont.
In fact, Sanders said, in his early life he had produced a documentary filmstrip about the life and times of Coolidge, way before he was mayor of Burlington.
Sanders said that he used to bring his son to Plymouth Notch when his son was young, and he said he often returns to Plymouth Notch, which he described as a touchstone for him about all that is good and great about Vermont.
He said that the preservation of Plymouth Notch, back to the time when Coolidge was sworn in as president on Aug. 2, 1923, created an incredible historical experience for Vermonters, especially Vermont school students.
Sanders didn't rule out finding more federal earmarks for the joint state-foundation effort to build a better visitor's center, which will be a joint project.
According to Baird, Gov. James Douglas had pledged the state's two-thirds participation in the project, with the nonprofit, private foundation coming up with the other third.
Cyndy Bittinger, the just-retired executive director of the Coolidge Foundation, said that the foundation now had an education outreach director, who visited local schools to drum up interest in the site.
But Bittinger said that the foundation was having strong success in bringing schools, and not just schools in the immediate area, to the site to learn about Vermont's native-born president.
"History has been pushed to the margins" in schools these days, Bittinger said.
Bill Brooks, development director for the foundation, said that so far about $2 million of the total cost of $4 million had been raised. Of the $4 million, $1 million will go into the foundation's endowment. He said he hoped to start construction in 2010, and open doors about a year later.
Brooks said that the foundation had applied for a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which would also be a big help.
By Susan Smallheer Herald Staff
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