Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Presidents are often unremarkable people. They also often make for uninteresting biographies–Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson being a notable exception. Biographers also tend to glorify presidents who are in office during wars or economic disasters; most presidential rankings reliably improve when reversed. The best presidents are the ones who do little, and thus do little harm. They help quiet and stable times stay that way. They are also often forgotten—as, frankly, presidents should be. The executive branch has long been too powerful and too glorified.

That is precisely why Coolidge makes an interesting subject, and Shlaes does a good job with the material. Lyndon Johnson had a president’s typical bad qualities almost to the point of caricature; Coolidge’s quiet and calm make him come across as the anti-LBJ.  He almost comes across as though he did not want to be there. Yet he still willingly climbed the ladder: Massachusetts State Representative, Mayor, State Senator (and President of the State Senate), Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Vice President, and President. Pretensions to the contrary, he was a career politician. Part of his reputation comes from the fact that he first became President accidentally, when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in 1923. Coolidge ran for and won his own full term on purpose, though he declined to run for a second.

That contradiction–that “I don’t want to be here, but I made it my life’s work to be here”–is a source of unresolved tension. Coolidge is a bit of a sphinx, and not necessarily in the Silent Cal way he was remembered. Shlaes’ biography focuses more on politics than personality, which suits her subject’s personality. But it would have benefited from more analysis of this part of Coolidge’s character.

Coolidge was also surprisingly tech-savvy. Shlaes notes that not only was Coolidge the first president to give a public address on radio, it was not a one-time experiment. He gave more than 500 radio speeches during his presidency, or roughly two per week, which is quite loquacious for a man nicknamed Silent Cal.

Coolidge was also not the free-market hero some libertarians have made him out to be in recent years. Shlaes is quite plain about this, yet has been accused of writing a free-market hagiography. This made me reluctant to pick up her book, and I’m glad I was not ultimately dissuaded. Coolidge, despite his penny-pinching reputation, did not shrink the federal government. It merely grew more slowly under his watch than under Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover’s. If Coolidge was laissez-faire, it was in comparative terms, not absolute terms. He was also no free trader. He used powers granted him under the 1922 Fordney-McCumber tariff bill, which passed when he was vice president, to raise trade barriers. In proportional terms, Fordney-McCumber was an even larger tariff increase than the more famous 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff.

To Coolidge’s credit, he was progressive on racial issues by the standard of his time, intentionally declining to nominate known Ku Klux Klan members to any position in his government. Though Coolidge was not particularly vocal on racial issues, that was seen as a deliberate statement at the time.

Coolidge also gave his activist Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, a long enough leash to enact a host of interventionist measures. These presaged Hoover’s doubling of real federal spending, one-third money supply contraction (and accompanying rapid deflation), and Smoot-Hawley that would follow when Hoover succeeded Coolidge.

Outside of politics, Coolidge seems to have been a decent man. This is also rare among presidents. He was a loyal husband, and did not mix very well with the philandering Harding. He was also a caring father, and he lost a son, age 11, while in office. The boy cut himself while playing outside on the White House grounds and the resulting infection, easily curable today with penicillin, was mortal. Coolidge mourned deeply, well beyond what the stoic standards of the time allowed. He never seemed quite the same after the loss. The happiest moment of his presidency seems to have been a family vacation he took out West, far removed from day-to-day affairs. His retirement was similarly slow-paced, though rather lucrative, with several board memberships and a weekly column paying for an upscale home. He would live there until his 1933 death, four years after leaving office.

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