Posted: October 30, 2013
A review of Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes and Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President, by Charles C. Johnson
For three decades, ever since Ronald Reagan relocated Calvin Coolidge's White House portrait to a prominent place in the Cabinet Room where Harry Truman's had hung, an effort has been steadily underway to reassess "Silent Cal." In his own time, Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Longworth famously observed that the laconic and taciturn New Englander looked as if he were "weaned on a pickle." The most biting barbs lampooned the restraint Coolidge displayed as chief executive, an inactivity that to many of his critics appeared retrograde in the wake of the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson administrations. H.L. Mencken mocked his daily naps—"Nero fiddled but Coolidge only snored"—and Dorothy Parker, on hearing of the former president's death in 1933, asked, "How could they tell?"
Such caricatures have been giving way to more nuanced portraits of America's 30th president. Although not uncritical, David Greenberg's elegant biography, Calvin Coolidge (2006), published as part of Times Books's The American Presidents Series, credits his subject for understanding that "a president's achievement does not lie merely in the laws and policies he implements," but also in "how a president gauges, guides, and gives expression to the mood of the people he leads." Coolidge, Greenberg argues, was a welcome port in the storm during the "Roaring Twenties"—he was a "virtuous" leader who "offered sustenance and calm" during a highly prosperous but morally challenged decade. Michael J. Gerhardt honors Coolidge in his new book, The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy, writing that "he was the first twentieth-century president to advance two constitutional convictions important to modern conservatives—the first that the Constitution restricted governmental power to regulate the economy, and the second that the federal government's limited powers include cultivating the moral character of Americans." Not surprisingly, the most fervent and thoughtful Coolidge revivalists have been conservatives; and the new books Coolidge by Amity Shlaes and Why Coolidge Matters by Charles Johnson bring this revisionism to a new height. As the authors see it, Coolidge's birth on July 4, 1872, happily foretold a political life informed by and dedicated to the principles of the American Founding.
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Shlaes, a trustee of the Coolidge Memorial Foundation and a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, offers a glowing, well-researched biography that traces Coolidge's path from a laborious but undistinguished childhood in the hardscrabble village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, to a remarkably successful political career that saw this seemingly sour pickle master the art of mass politics. Coolidge ran for public office 19 times, and lost only one contest that was placed before the voters—a 1904 contest for a seat on the Northampton, Massachusetts, school board.
Coolidge's political fortunes, Shlaes argues, were enhanced by his marriage to Grace Anna Goodhue. Although the two shared Vermont roots, and an ambition that had brought them to Massachusetts (he to practice law, she to teach), it was their differences that seemed to draw them together. As outgoing and charming as Calvin was shy and awkward, Grace helped her husband navigate the social engagements that were a necessary but unwanted part of political life in Boston, where Coolidge served as governor from 1919 to 1921; and in Washington, D.C., where he first arrived as vice president in 1921, and then assumed the presidency in 1923 upon Warren Harding's mysterious death. Coolidge's wife was one of the first signs that he was underestimated: "Other men also found Grace stunning, and were stunned to find that she favored the quiet lawyer."
Although not without its tensions—Shlaes tells a beguiling tale of Grace's five-hour "hike" with a member of the president's secret service detail—their marriage, as Greenberg notes, was "an important anchor to Coolidge." Her gaiety and poise won over many who found her husband insufferably dour. More importantly, Grace was the keeper of the Coolidges' home life. Although she was an educated, modern woman (she graduated from the University of Vermont and taught at the respected Clarke School for the Deaf), Grace was kept at a distance from her husband's political career. As First Lady, somewhat to her consternation, she was not even privy to the president's daily schedule. But Coolidge's relationship with Grace paralleled his understanding of the relationship between government and civil society. Just as Grace was a source of strength and security apart from political affairs, so too should family and religious life undergird public morality for the nation.
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Shlaes's regard for the bond between Calvin and Grace is surpassed only by her fastidious attention to Coolidge's infatuation with economy. Indeed, family and thriftiness were inextricably joined in his mind. The president "especially cherished the word economy," writes Shlaes, "because it came from the Greek for household." Just as he and Grace lived modestly, even when occupying the White House, so Coolidge closely monitored the nation's budget. He worked closely with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker turned committed tax cutter. From 1924 to 1926, the president and the Treasury head joined forces to greatly reduce the burden that had accrued during World War I, when rates on the wealthiest Americans reached 70% (they eventually got the rate down to 25%). The core of Mellon's program, popularly known as "scientific taxation," seemed to anticipate contemporary "supply-side" economics: cutting the top tax rates would lead the most prosperous to invest those funds and spur productivity, which would benefit workers and consumers. As Coolidge stated in his 1925 Inaugural Address,
The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich.... The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful.
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Coolidge's economic program enjoyed great popularity; he and his fellow Republicans won a landslide victory in 1924. "Trickle down economics enjoyed popular support," acknowledges Greenberg, because "the Coolidge-Mellon plan included not just rate cuts for the rich but other discounts that benefitted the middle class, such as an across-the-board income tax cut in 1924 and an increased exemption for married couples in 1926." By the end of Coolidge's presidency, most Americans paid no federal income taxes at all, and as Mellon predicted, reducing revenues contributed to great prosperity. "The successful businessman," Mencken quipped, "enjoys the public respect and adulation that elsewhere bathe only bishops and generals."
Even as he enthusiastically proclaimed, "The chief business of the American people is business," Coolidge insisted that tax cuts could not take place without deep and abiding attention to government spending. Revenues could only follow, his Inaugural Address stressed, from "economy in public expenditure." Shlaes's admiration for Coolidge implies criticism not just of Big Government Democrats—the target of her previous book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depresssion (2007)—but also of reckless supply-siders whose messianic fervor for tax-cutting has trumped concerns about the national debt. "Debt takes its toll," reads the first line of Coolidge, and that lesson shines through an otherwise disjointed narrative. The parsimony that Coolidge learned on his father's farm in Plymouth Notch and that informed the frugal household he and Grace maintained continued to guide him as president. My favorite example—and one I had hitherto thought apocryphal—recounts the pencil policy pursued by Coolidge's Budget Bureau, the executive body created in 1921 to help the president ride herd on government departments and agencies. Only one pencil at a time was now issued to government workers. Those who did not use their pencils to the end were expected to return the stub. The measure apparently worked. "Our item of expense for pencils is materially less," boasted a report issued by Budget Bureau Director Herbert Mayhew Lord.
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The president did not restrict his green eyeshade to pencil stubs. He fought stubborn—but not always successful—battles to reign in government expenditures, even for soldiers, farmers, and flood control. The fight over waterways, following the disastrous Mississippi flood of 1927, perhaps best displays Coolidge as the "great refrainer." Not wanting to encourage an expansion of government responsibility to provide disaster relief, Coolidge refused the press and local officials who importuned him to visit the devastated flood sites in Louisiana and Mississippi; instead, he sent Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who had an illustrious reputation for rescuing Belgium from starvation during World War I. Coolidge's forbearance made George W. Bush's ill-fated delegation of authority to "Brownie"—Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina seem bold by comparison. Unlike Brown, however, Hoover appeared to perform admirably—especially given the level of destruction—and further enhanced his resumé, leading to his own successful presidential bid in 1928. Coolidge, by contrast, was excoriated by the press for staying away and resisting federal legislation that would aide the distressed areas. Even celebrated humorist Will Rogers, who had been relatively friendly to the Coolidge White House, grew testy: the president was postponing legislation, he wrote, in "the hope that those needing relief will perhaps have conveniently died in the meantime."
Coolidge did finally act, albeit defensively. As a relief bill made its way through the House and Senate, the president worked with congressional leaders to hammer out a compromise bill that limited federal responsibility to the areas flooded in 1927, circumventing calls for a more comprehensive flood control program. Refusing to play the part of the "modern president," Shlaes notes with admiration, Coolidge resisted the malady of governmental do-somethingism that began to infect the White House with the arrival of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
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And yet, Shlaes does not explain evidence that seems to contradict her portrayal of the flinty New Englander as a hero of frugality. For example, Coolidge's celebration of Charles Lindbergh's historic cross-Atlantic flight in the summer of 1927 spared no expense in its lavish welcome for the new American hero. As Shlaes recounts, a battleship was sent to bring Lindbergh home from Paris, and once the navy cruiser reached American shores, it was greeted by a grand flotilla of four destroyers, 27 fighter planes, and a dirigible. Next came a parade to the Washington Monument, watched by 300,000 people who had gathered in the nation's capital, where the president awarded Lindbergh the Distinguished Flying Cross. The celebration culminated with a speech broadcast by radio to some 30 million eager listeners in which Coolidge praised the all-American aviator for embodying individual self-reliance and the Industrial Revolution.
The celebration helped deflect attention from the president's seeming indifference to the plight of the Mississippi flood victims. It showed that "rugged individualism," as Hoover would later characterize conservative Republican values, could meet the modern age head on. Prosperity need not degenerate into the kind of craven materialism famously depicted in F. Scott Fizgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925)—but instead could encourage the virtues of Coolidge's "economy": modesty, discipline, hard work. Coolidge would give further expression to this hope for conservative greatness a few months later, when he dedicated the grand sculptures on Mount Rushmore. Like the Lindbergh festivities, this celebration of presidential greatness, he believed, justified a departure from fiscal restraint. Shlaes tends to treat such events as minor detractions in Coolidge's grim Puritan stewardship. "[T]he best monument to his kind of presidency," she insists, "was no monument at all."
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Charles Johnson's Why Coolidge Matters does not aim to be a comprehensive biography along the lines of Shlaes's, but is instead a focused study of Silent Cal's statesmanship. In that way, it is reminiscent of Thomas Silver's Coolidge and the Historians (1983). Johnson, a former fellow of the Claremont Institute, argues that Coolidge matters because his five and a half years in office first revealed how the modern presidency invented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson could be deployed to achieve conservative ends. Condemned by the Left and praised by the Right for being a do-nothing executive, Coolidge, in Johnson's view, was as an active conservative who mounted a successful counter-offensive against Progressivism, a "constitutional progressive" who displayed Hamiltonian energy in fostering prosperity and a balanced budget.
In truth, "the return to normalcy" began with Coolidge's predecessor, President Warren Harding, who coined this popular slogan in the 1920 campaign. It captured the temper of the times, when a large part of the American people had grown weary not just of wartime hardships but also of the bold, persistent activism that had roiled the country for the better part of two decades. Harding was an organization man of the old school, whose toleration for patronage encouraged, as Paul P. Van Riper has written in his History of the United States Civil Service (1958), "a full-scale raid" on the spoils of office. Upon assuming the presidency, Coolidge was faced with the epidemic of scandals that followed, most notoriously the Teapot Dome affair, which saw Secretary of Interior Albert Fall taint the administration for having leased Naval petroleum reserves to private developers, who, in turn, favored him with personal loans and gifts. Although Coolidge was reluctant to attack his predecessor's record, especially if it might encourage more federal intrusion, he eventually cleaned up the mess Harding left.
Coolidge's careful management of the scandals, Johnson argues, illustrates his gift for cultivating public opinion. With the help of some of the most talented public relations men of his day, Coolidge sought to elevate the "mind of the country." "Those who compose this mind," he wrote in his autobiography,
are unorganized, formless, and inarticulate. Against a compact and well-drilled minority they do not appear to be very effective. They are nevertheless the great power in our government. I have constantly appealed to them and have seldom failed to enlist their support.
William Howard Taft deplored the Progressive celebration of "pure democracy" in the 1912 presidential campaign—the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court thought judges to be the Constitution's final authority—and went down to political defeat. Coolidge's political effectiveness followed in no small measure from his embrace of populism: individual men and women, not judges, were "the court of last resort and their decisions are final."
Johnson argues that Coolidge anticipated Reagan; he was the first "Great Communicator." Viewing the mass media as a critical intermediary in modern American democracy, Coolidge was extraordinarily faithful in discharging what he felt was his obligation to reporters: he held 520 press conferences during his five years in office, more per month than any other president. It was not the gregarious FDR, but Silent Cal who made the presidential press conference a Washington institution. What's more, efforts to provide for the comfort and convenience of White House correspondents reached new heights during the Coolidge Administration. The president, in turn, used the considerable measure of good will these efforts earned him to exert legislative leadership. As Elmer Cornwell wrote in his seminal study of presidents and public opinion, "In no less than eighteen of the conferences held between December, 1923, and June, 1924, the subject of taxation was discussed by Coolidge, sometimes at considerable length. On ten of these occasions he urged Congress to enact the legislation, in specific terms."
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"It is because in their hours of timidity the Congress becomes subservient to the importunities of organized minorities that the President comes more and more to stand as the champion of the rights of the whole country," Coolidge wrote in his autobiography. Although he showed more respect than the Progressives for the critical role of political parties in American democracy, Coolidge envisaged an executive-centered party system supplanting the decentralized, patronage-based organizations that Harding had tried to reinvigorate. His overwhelming first-ballot nomination in 1924 and the landslide he won over his Democratic opponent, James W. Davis, marked an important advance, as Coolidge himself observed, in the emergence of the president as "the sole repository of party responsibility." The stand-pat Republican senators who had controlled the GOP since the debacle of 1912 had little regard for Coolidge. Unlike Harding, he was not one of them—his background was in state politics. Yet given the personal bond that Coolidge had formed with the public through the press and bully pulpit, stand-pat Republicans had little choice but to support the president's bid for a full term.
Coolidge's bond with the public was sealed by his mastery of public broadcasting. He was the first president to deliver speeches on the radio and, as Johnson observes, he pioneered a new form of mass appeal. "I am very fortunate that I came in with the radio," Coolidge told Senator James Watson of Indiana. "I have a good radio voice, and now I can get my messages across." Eugene McDonald, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, told Coolidge that his talent for radio broadcasts would trump the rhetorical innovations of his progressive predecessors: "Radio will draw you close to the American fireside," he wrote in words that anticipated FDR's Fireside Chats, "for you will be speaking to the people as they sit in their living room."
Coolidge's eager embrace of popular opinion and presidential leadership, even if deployed in the service of a robust economy, suggests how much Progressivism had already transformed American politics at the turn of the century. Johnson argues, however, that "COOLIDGE'S RELIGIOUS GROUNDING [capitals in original!] prevented him from making Progressivism's gravest mistake: rejecting the exceptional statesmanship of the American founding." His 4th of July birthday no doubt reinforced the civic pride cultivated by his Puritan upbringing. Just as Abraham Lincoln viewed the Declaration of Independence as the guiding star for resolving the slavery crisis, so Johnson depicts Coolidge seeking refuge in its universal principles to refine the "pagan materialism" that tainted the Roaring '20s.
Coolidge warned against the "barren scepter" of consumerism in the address he delivered in Philadelphia on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. The individual rights proclaimed in 1776 were
not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions.... Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
Prosperity came to the American people, he had elaborated in a Memorial Day address three years earlier, "that they might have the resources for more of the refinements of life, more for the needs of education and religion, more to minister to the things of the soul. Power came to the nation that it might the better serve its owns citizens and bear its share of the burden of civilization." Coolidge sought to inspire the American people by persuading them—as he put it in his 1925 Inaugural Address—that his economic program reflected "idealism in its most practical form."
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According to Johnson, this was not just rhetorical flourish. Although Coolidge had achieved political fame when, as governor of Massachusetts, he supported the police commissioner's summary dismissal of Boston's striking police officers, he worried about the harsh working conditions and inequality that marred the flourishing U.S. economy. While serving in the Massachusetts legislature, he had played a constructive role in resolving a 1912 conflict that broke out in the city of Lawrence between workers and the textile industry on terms that were favorable to labor; and as president, he supported the progressive Republican governor Gifford Pinchot's arbitration of a United Mine Workers strike in Pennsylvania that got owners to agree to full recognition of collective bargaining rights, an eight-hour workday, a 10% wage increase, and a compromise on the question of automatic dues collection by the union.
Without question, as his restraint in the Mississippi flood crises made clear, Coolidge had strong reservations about the federal government assuming ongoing responsibility to protect individual men and women against the abuses of business and the vagaries of the marketplace. "Governments do not make ideals," he warned in his speech on the Declaration, "but ideals make government." At the same time, his speech dedicating the Mount Rushmore memorial praised Theodore Roosevelt's commitment to industrial democracy—for striving to add "economic freedom" to "political freedom."
Coolidge's hope was that public efforts to humanize capitalism would be constrained by the idea of natural rights, which preceded and thus limited public authority. As Johnson points out, Coolidge put special emphasis on the importance of public education, a critical institution in nurturing an active, informed citizenry. Throughout his career, he advocated higher wages for teachers who performed the critical work of refining and enlarging Americans' infatuation with material prosperity. "We compensate liberally the manufacturer and the merchant; but we fail to appreciate those who guard the minds of our youth," he lamented.
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Calvin Coolidge, then, is neither the pre-modern icon that Amity Shlaes portrays nor the prophet of modern conservatism for whom Charles Johnson yearns. Rather, he was the most important president during a transformative moment in American political life. "Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values—and used nineteenth-century values to soothe the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations," as David Greenberg observes. "Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux." Johnson argues that for a nation once again in flux, Coolidge's presidency might hold lessons for the 21st century, and suggests that Silent Cal "would have found something admirable in the Tea Party movement." But I think Coolidge would have been discomfited by our Manichean politics. His presidency sought a consensus on venerable principles, which he believed all Americans shared. Viewing himself as a leader during a time when both parties laid claim to the founding principles, he would deny—as his respect for T. R. suggests—Johnson's sweeping claim that Progressives rejected the founders outright. (He also granted, on hearing of Wilson's death, that America had lost "a great world figure.") Theirs was a contest fought on the landscape of American individualism, where both sides sought to fulfill the exalted, elusive hope—expressed in the Constitution's preamble—that self-government could be achieved on a grand scale. More to the point, although today's progressives and conservatives have been complicit in the alarming debt crisis Americans now face, both sides have expressed a desire for a "grand bargain" to ameliorate it. In this shared hope, no matter how faint, one hears echoes of Calvin Coolidge's sermons on the meaning of the 4th of July.