Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes (Harper, 576 pp., $35)
Occasionally, what goes around does come around. Eighty years after Calvin Coolidge and his reputation were laid to rest, the 30th president is enjoying a renaissance. New Deal historians may unfairly blame Coolidge for the Great Depression and consign him to the dustbin of failed presidents, but modern conservatives, inspired by his frugality, see him as a muse. “Governor Romney, please meet Gov. Coolidge,” pleaded the American Thinker last year; “It’s time for a Little Calvin Coolidge in our Economic Approach,” demanded the American Spectator. Economists, searching for ways out of the country’s economic doldrums, gathered at Dartmouth to contemplate what advice he would give—all while Republicans searched for a reincarnated Coolidge to carry their banner.
Coolidge admiration is not entirely novel—Ronald Reagan hung Silent Cal’s portrait in the West Wing’s Cabinet Room—but it is, to some degree, only skin deep. Many Coolidge fans celebrate less the man than the silhouette: a taciturn New Englander who cut taxes and spending and presided over the booming twenties. But a serious discussion of Coolidge’s ideas and the importance of his presidency has been lacking until now.
Amity Shlaes’s Coolidge is not only the scholarly culmination of the Coolidge revival, but a definitive biography that should move appreciation for its subject beyond conservative publications and into the political mainstream. Hers is not the only recent Coolidge study. Robert Sobel’s 1998 Coolidge: An American Enigma and Charles C. Johnson’s new Why Coolidge Matters are both fine and insightful. Johnson’s book, in particular, is a persuasive and thoughtful defense of its subject’s record with an eye toward the current national debate. But in terms of scope and depth, Shlaes’s book is in a league of its own. Coolidge is masterfully researched and lyrically written, balancing detailed economic history with a fascinating and often moving human story. In this it resembles and also serves as a prequel to the author’s unromantic history of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies, The Forgotten Man.
As Shlaes explains, Coolidge’s austere character was forged in and forever linked with Vermont. He was, from childhood on, an outsider. Unlike preceding generations of Coolidges who farmed the Green Mountain State’s flinty soil, Calvin left Plymouth Notch, the family homestead, for Amherst, Massachusetts. There, under the tutelage of philosophy instructor Charles Edward Garman, he grew from an awkward adolescent to a self-assured young man determined to swim in what Garman described as the river of life. For Coolidge, those currents led to a career in law and then, quickly, to politics.
From the city council to the statehouse, from the mayor’s office to the governor’s office, Coolidge’s career was a frenzy of realized ambition. But he was not always the tax-cutter and small-government champion of conservative lore. Originally a mild supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, and an advocate of Republican unity at all costs, Coolidge often made it a priority to hold the middle ground. He didn’t hesitate to support his party, even if it meant more public spending. “There should be no parsimony in the care of our unfortunates,” he declared in 1916.
But as he progressed from office to office, Coolidge began to see firsthand the destructive power of overzealous regulation and legislation, careless public budgeting, and stifling taxation, both on businesses and individuals. In time, he fought off demands to build new city halls, consolidated 100 state government departments, and, most famously, as Massachusetts governor, dismissed over 1,100 striking Boston policemen in 1919. The decision, which Shlaes examines in an absorbing chapter, was difficult: the picketing police had legitimate grievances, but waves of violence and looting forced Coolidge’s hand. The incident launched his national star.
His strong hand during the strike, along with the promotional push of Frank Stearns, the Massachusetts department store owner who supported his career from its early years, landed him a spot on the 1920 presidential ticket with Warren G. Harding. The duo pledged to return the nation to “normalcy”—a phrase Shlaes rescues from historical ridicule and translates as a promise to restore the order lost, and peel back the excessive layers of government accumulated, during the Great War. Harding pursued these goals with vigor, holding the line on spending and cutting government. Miserable in the vice presidency and ostracized by Washington society, Coolidge provided little assistance. But then Harding, his administration sinking in scandal, suddenly died in San Francisco in the summer of 1923, and the task of normalizing the country fell to his deputy. In perhaps the most humble passage of power in American history, which Shlaes wonderfully recounts, Coolidge was sworn into the presidency by his father, a notary public, near the flickering light of a kerosene lamp at Plymouth Notch.
Shlaes focuses on two key components of Coolidge’s presidency: spending and taxes. Huddling with his budget director, Herbert Lord, the new president relentlessly cut government and searched for savings. Government employees, for example, were issued one pencil at a time, and the government purchased lighter, less expensive paper. The Weather Bureau stopped sending out postcard forecasts, since citizens now turned to their newspapers for that information; the post office made bags with new, cheaper material, and government-wide red tape was replaced with simple white string. Coolidge, a master of the art of rebuffing congressional spending requests (he vetoed 50 bills), even carried the frugality into the executive mansion, where he chastised his housekeeper for excessive ham procurement. Meanwhile, collaborating with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, the president lowered the top income tax rate to 25 percent on the theory that the reductions, paired with budget cuts, would actually bring more money into government coffers. It worked: revenues surged, wartime debt declined, and the president both balanced and decreased the size of the federal budget.
As interesting as the policy side of the story is, Shlaes’s book is equally valuable for its insight into Coolidge’s life and too-often lampooned character. The retiring Vermonter was actually an ambitious, shrewd politician; the silent and aloof president was capable of great warmth and striking eloquence; and his domestic life was mostly tranquil (his wife, Grace, supplied the fire to his ice). But like Abraham Lincoln, Coolidge knew tragedy too well—the death of his mother and sister colored his youth, while the death of his teenage son, Calvin Jr. (whose own writing reveals a promising life cut short), darkened his presidency and the rest of his life.
Shlaes persuasively discredits the shopworn image of Coolidge as incurious. Coolidge was, in fact, a complex thinker who possessed a New Englander’s knack for expressing intricate ideas in common language. Coolidge’s bodyguard, Edmund Starling, even saw similarities between his charge and our most academic president, Woodrow Wilson. Nor was Coolidge a Luddite. He embraced technology, particularly aviation, and saw clearly that it was a key driver of prosperity. While not exactly a civil rights crusader, he did use the presidency to rebuff the Ku Klux Klan and call for tolerance toward newly arrived immigrants.
Though he did not lack ego, Coolidge refreshingly (and perhaps strangely by today’s standards) viewed power, and especially the presidency, coolly. When faced with the possibility of running, and likely winning, his own second term in 1928, which would have made him the longest-serving U.S. president at that time, Coolidge politely declined. “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man,” he later wrote. This reticent legacy offers contemporary America, deep in debt, spending wildly while growing anemically, and obsessed with presidential celebrity, an alternative path—or, in Shlaes’s phrasing, a useful “gift.” Whether the country would accept it is another matter.
Toward the end of his term, Coolidge was besieged with requests for federal intervention and assistance after a series of destructive floods hit the South. A committed federalist, the president refused, pointing out that the states, rather than Washington, were best situated to provide relief. When flooding subsequently devastated Vermont, Coolidge stood firm, while the nation grew restive and called for action. Could an equally restrained president find favor today? Whatever the answer may be, Shlaes offers a long-overdue, three-dimensional version of Calvin Coolidge. Her book is not unlike its namesake: thoughtful, modestly eloquent, dryly humorous, and above all, relevant.