Coolidge

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

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    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.

“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.

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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.”

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.

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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