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Coolidge

Amity Shlaes offers a fresh perspective on the 1920s and "Silent Cal," but infuses her narrative with ideology.

By Justin MoyerContributor / February 13, 2013

Coolidge By Amity Shlaes Harper 576 pp.

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In Coolidge, conservative journalist Amity Shlaes gives us a hefty, well-researched, contrarian tome about Calvin Coolidge, the man of few words who ruled the nation during much of the roaring ‘20s. Unfortunately, whether you like it will depend on what you believe about macroeconomics.

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“Our modern economic lexicon and the theories behind it cannot capture Coolidge’s achievements or those of his predecessor, Warren Harding,” Shlaes writes. “It is hard for a modern student of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government.”

Shlaes is right – it’s very hard, especially if you are one of the students she dismisses. In high school, I learned that a poll of historians designed by John F. Kennedy acolyte Arthur Schlesinger Jr. rated Harding’s presidency a “failure” and Coolidge’s “below average”; that Harding was corrupt; that Coolidge, who took Harding’s place when he died in 1923, fostered an economic bubble that ended with the Great Depression; and that John Maynard Keynes’s prescription for fighting economic downturn – tax during a boom, spend during a bust – works.

Shlaes rejects this.  Director of an initiative on individualism at the George W. Bush Institute, she’s no stranger to right-wing economics. Her 2008 book, "The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression", dared criticize Herbert Hoover – a stodgy free-marketeer – for what she sees as his liberal response to the 20th century’s most severe downturn. To her, Coolidge, a fiscally stingy president who lived in a duplex after leaving the White House and didn’t think it was appropriate for the federal government to provide disaster relief, is Superman.

“Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts,” she writes. “Coolidge made a virtue of inaction.”

At least her sketch of the 30th president’s early life is uncontroversial. Born in 1872 in Vermont, Coolidge was a middling student, the last attorney who became commander-in-chief who “read law” in a firm instead of attending law school. In a move that conservatives compare to Ronald Reagan’s standoff with air-traffic controllers in 1981, Coolidge answered a police strike in 1919 as governor of Massachusetts by firing every officer who deserted his post.

“In some ways the year 1919 was like 1787,” Shlaes writes. “The time for disruption was over; in order for the next day, the next decade, to proceed well ... law must be allowed to reign.”

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