“Debt takes its toll.”
So begins “Coolidge”, the magnificent new biography of the 30th president of the United States by bestselling author and free-market journalist Amity Shlaes. No writer is perhaps better suited to write a biography of the fiscal sentinel Calvin Coolidge, and this biography is indeed a prequel to her masterpiece, “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.”
Calvin Coolidge found himself on the ballot as Warren G. Harding’s vice presidential running mate on the 1920 Republican Party ticket after an unlikely yet highly successful career in Massachusetts politics. Harding and Coolidge campaigned for smaller government as a response to the rising federal debt following World War I, a top tax rate over 70 percent, the nationalization of railroads, and Progressive attempts to establish governmental control of water power and electricity.
As president, Harding signed legislation that gave the executive branch more control of the federal budget, lowered the top tax rate, and proposed selling naval petroleum reserves to private entities. Yet Harding appointed cronies to several significant positions who were incapable of resisting bribes and favoritism. To stanch the damage, Harding embarked on a West Coast trip but never came back. He died, and Coolidge found himself as president.
Into the breach Coolidge stepped. He vowed to see Harding’s budgetary and tax reforms through to “perfection,” meaning without scandal. To that end, he quickly announced that government spending would be slashed: “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.” Coolidge led by the example of discipline, meeting with his budget director every Friday prior to Cabinet meetings in order to cull the budget and construct arguments for denying requests for more spending. Shlaes demonstrates how Coolidge’s twin pillars of fiscal policy – tax cuts coupled with tight budgeting – brought more tax receipts, budget surplus, and economic prosperity. The publication of this book is fortuitous.
Coolidge is, however, much more than economic policy, budgets, and taxes. It is also a story about fathers and sons. One of the interesting subtexts of this book is the relationship between Coolidge and his father, the Vermont jack-of-all-trades and legislator John Coolidge. Solidified by mutual flinty New England reserve, Shlaes demonstrates how much the future president leaned on his father, learned from him, admired him, and shared his triumphs and defeats. Nothing better symbolized both men’s quiet confidence than the scene of Coolidge’s first recitation of the presidential oath, which Shlaes elegantly describes. Coolidge was visiting the family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, when the news of Harding’s death reached the house with no telephone. Coolidge was sworn in by the light of a kerosene lamp by his father, a notary public. The president of the United States then went back to bed.
Coolidge forged a similar bond of mutual respect and admiration with his sons, Calvin and John, with whom he shared a pithy sense of humor. No stranger to grief in his life, Coolidge’s agony at watching Calvin Jr. die of a blood infection in 1924, at perhaps the peak of Coolidge’s popularity and effectiveness, is devastatingly portrayed by Shlaes. Only later, in his autobiography, did Coolidge reveal a glimpse of the profound grief with which he coped for his remaining days in the White House. He wrote, “When he went, the glory of the presidency went with him.”
Coolidge should be of interest locally not only for the timely reminder of how a competent and honorable Massachusetts legislator and governor acted. One of the significant threads running through the narrative is the influence of Amherst College in and Amherst men on Coolidge’s life during and after his career there. Shlaes relates with well-researched detail Coolidge’s actions as chairman of a special legislative committee during the strike of workers of the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, and his steel-eyed determination as Massachusetts governor during the 1919 Boston police strike, which placed Coolidge in high esteem nationally. Shlaes even cites John Greenleaf Whittier’s description of the winter sun in Haverhill in the poem “Snow-Bound,” a reminder that some things never change.
One comes away from this book with the image of Coolidge as a governor – not so much as a chief executive, but the human incarnation of the mechanical device that limits the speed of an automobile. Coolidge could be and was “progressive” in many instances during his political career. Yet he had a sense of appropriate boundaries that the overreaching radicals of his era such as Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson – and certainly the far left in power in Washington today – would not and will not set. “It is often much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” Coolidge once wrote to his father. Coolidge vetoed 50 bills and utilized the pocket veto. He utilized the rules at his disposal and went no further.
In that sense, Coolidge is difficult to read. Coolidge, the consummate profile of New England economy and dignity, was the diametric opposite of the hacks and crooks that populate all levels of contemporary government, who ram legislation through with no heed to the fiscal, institutional, and moral price they exact. Coolidge’s reluctance to say too much, his ability to say no, and his willingness to cede his office in the name of principle would brand him a freak today. Shortly before his death and prior to the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, Coolidge knew the ground was shifting toward more government encroachment, meddling, and waste: “I have been out of touch with political activities I feel that I no longer fit in with these times.”
Yet Shlaes reminds us that leaders can be responsible stewards of the treasury, and shows us a blueprint for the way out from under the crushing debt we have so recklessly amassed. Admittedly, we live in different times. Yet history is often cyclical and the ground may shift again. Coolidge restored honor and dignity to the White House in the wake of scandal, economy in the face of profligate spending.
Perhaps someone of Coolidge’s character, economy, and attitude will present himself or herself, and the American electorate will respond positively. The public’s revulsion to the current phony crisis of sequestration, and the interest in Rand Paul’s filibuster, gives glimmers of hope. Our current political leadership – and we who elect them – are spending the country into ruin. The laws of man can be bent and broken. The laws of economics cannot. As Shlaes makes clear, Coolidge would be quick to remind us that one way or another, we must pay the cost.
Matthew May welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org