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Coolidge

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

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Four years later, after unexpectedly securing the Republican vice-presidential nomination, Coolidge took the White House after Harding was felled by a heart attack. In 1924, he won the office on his own. Until he chose not to run again in 1928, in many meetings with budget adviser Herbert Mayhew Lord, he “brought saving to a high art,” Schlaes says. Even when he knew his vetoes would be overturned, “Silent Cal” gave the thumbs-down to rural post roads, initiatives to improve public health, and a bonus for veterans of the Great War.

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Coolidge also negotiated the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Treaty between the United States, France, and Germany that aimed to outlaw war as a tool of international diplomacy. Anyone curious how this turned out can Google “World War II,” but Shlaes musters a curious defense of her subject’s signature diplomatic achievement.

“The treaty might in future years merely provide fatal cover for dictatorships,” she writes. “Still the treaty had value as law, as precedent, as a model.” Maybe, but isn’t the League of Nations – the brainchild of Woodrow Wilson, Harding’s Democratic predecessor who conservatives such as Glenn Beck despise – a more valuable model for international relations?

Coolidge wouldn’t live to grapple with the failure of Kellogg-Briand and the rise of Adolph Hitler. Five years after he left office, he was dead of a heart attack. Unsurprisingly, the ceremony was spartan. 

“Coolidge’s was a simple funeral, astonishingly simple for a former president,” Shlaes writes. “There was no eulogy, no address, just two hymns.”

No matter – in "Coolidge," Shlaes provides the hymns. She offers Coolidge as a model for tax-cutting tea party Republicans fresh from November’s thumping.

“Perseverance, property rights, contracts, civility to one’s opponents, silence, smaller government, trust, certainty, restraint, respect for faith, federalism, economy, and thrift: these Coolidge ideals do suddenly seem obvious to us as well,” Shlaes writes. “Knowing the details of his life may well help Americans now turn a curse to a blessing or, at the very least, find the heart to continue their own persevering.”

The best books about presidents, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much-loved "Team of Rivals" and David McCullough’s "John Adams," step back from modern political debates. Shlaes has written the first substantial book on Coolidge in a decade, but ideology undermines her narrative. Unless John Maynard Keynes – and my 11th-grade history teacher – were totally wrong, it’s hard to believe her book will be relevant after another.  

Justin Moyer is a Monitor contributor

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