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For much-maligned "Silent Cal" Coolidge: A July 4 birthday, a new museum and new respect

In the Vermont hamlet where Calvin Coolidge was born, folks will celebrate his star-spangled birthday the way they always do.

A Vermont National Guard contingent and a color guard will gather at noon on the village green and walk down to the Plymouth Notch Cemetery, where Coolidge is buried, trailed by hundreds of people — Coolidge descendants, presidential history buffs and locals.

There, Brig. Gen. Matthew McCoy will lay a wreath provided by the White House, a U.S. Army bugler will blow "Taps" and McCoy will lead the procession back up the road to the village, where a chicken barbecue picnic is held for anyone who wants to come.

But this year, the celebration of the only U.S. president born on July 4 won't end with the simple Independence Day ritual.

The opening of a new museum dedicated to Coolidge, the renewed cachet of his back-to-basics government philosophy and a symposium revisiting his presidency are prompting new looks at the shy, oft-maligned 30th president known as "Silent Cal."

"We haven't heard much about Coolidge for 60 years, but he's become a heroic figure to the tea partiers because of his strong anti-tax positions," said presidential historian Rogan Kersh, of New York University.

The son of a village storekeeper, he was a stern Yankee with a dry wit who believed that the best government was one that governed the least. He served as governor of Massachusetts before being tapped for the GOP ticket headed by Warren Harding in 1920.

In 1923, he was swept into history when Harding died of a heart attack. Coolidge, who was spending the summer at his family's homestead in Plymouth Notch, was sworn in as president by his father — who was a notary public — in the parlor of their house just before 3 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1923.

He was elected to a full term in 1924, but chose not to seek re-election to a second full term. He turned down a $2 million retirement package offered by friends when he left the White House, insisting instead that the money be given to a school for the deaf where his wife had once taught.

Coolidge, who fought to reduce income taxes and business taxes, opposed farm subsidies and thought it wrong to raise money for political campaigning, doesn't get much respect from history books.

He's consistently rated among the worst U.S. presidents in polls. Some believe his hands-off approach as chief executive helped set the stage of the Depression, which began about seven months after he left office.

His image and place in history may be changing, thanks to the nascent tea party movement, which finds resonance in Coolidge's anti-tax ways.

"Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery," Coolidge once said, a line that's become popular at tea party rallies.

High Noon blogger David Offutt calls him "the patron saint of the Tea Party."

"At a time when government expansion is viewed as the answer for social and economic problems, a president who believed the opposite looks interesting," said Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes.

"The tea party people care about taxes, they understand that tax rates have something to do with recovery, and they're concerned taxes will go up. Likewise, Coolidge understood that low taxes tend to produce growth more productive than growth produced by spending," said Shlaes, who serves on an advisory board to the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation.

Coolidge has his fans.

When President Ronald Reagan took office, he removed a picture of Harry S Truman in the Oval Office and replaced it with one of Coolidge. And back home in Plymouth Notch, Coolidge still is revered.

The village — now a state historic site — looks virtually unchanged from Coolidge's days — from the general store his father owned (the dance hall upstairs was the "summer White House" in 1924) to the homestead across the street where he was sworn in.

Coolidge's gravestone — unobtrusively placed alongside those of 22 other family members — has a presidential seal etched into it and a pair of 2-foot-tall U.S. flags staked to the soil, but otherwise is hard to spot.

Such Spartan surroundings fit.

"I like the simplicity of it," said Ted Johnson, 71, of Spring Hill, Fla., who recently visited the grave.

Next month, a new museum dedicated to Coolidge will opens its door at the historic site that bears his name, which is tucked away in the hills of southern Vermont.

The President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center, a $2 million project jointly funded by the state of Vermont and the Coolidge Foundation, will open Aug. 7, offering archived Coolidge material under one roof, exhibition space, a learning lab for teachers and students, meeting space and a museum store. Coolidge's presidential library and museum are housed in the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass.

Robert Kirby, president of the Foundation's board of trustees, said his organization is out to rehabilitate a legacy he says has been misunderstood.

"He was a very frugal person, very hardworking person," Kirby said

"He had enormous character," said Kirby. "And we want the world to know that. We would hope that through a better knowledge of Calvin Coolidge, we would work through more current problems differently and hopefully in an improved fashion."

On Oct. 7, the Foundation will host a symposium and gala at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.