While writing Coolidge, I discovered that Clarence Barron, one of the founders of the WSJ, backed Coolidge strongly, even cheering him up when he worried over unions. “Wall Street doesn’t care about the coal strike,” Barron told Coolidge. The WSJ’s obit for Coolidge is stunning. And Barron led the fund drive for Coolidge’s favorite non-profit post presidency, his wife’s charity, the Clarke School for the Deaf.
LOPEZ: Is Calvin Coolidge a political model for our day?
SHLAES: Yes. In a way, he’s better than Reagan. His tax rates were lower, and he cut budgets.
LOPEZ: Can governors learn from his tenure in Massachusetts?
SHLAES: Yes. While governor, Coolidge faced two tough challenges. The first was the 1919 Boston police strike, about which, more later. The second, though, he rated just as tough, or tougher. It was a mandate from the state legislature and the state constitution to prune back departments. In a highly politicized state where the governor’s term lasted but a year, Coolidge had to lay off friends and political allies. Of course many were furious. But the work was good prep for his budget cutting in Washington.
LOPEZ: How did Coolidge upstage a sitting president during his time as governor?
SHLAES: At a time when the president, Woodrow Wilson, was waffling over militant union demands, Coolidge showed the strikers, and the nation, that he, the governor of Massachusetts, would not be blackmailed by unions. Though the specific strikers at that point were of course the Boston police, Coolidge stated categorically, in a telegram to union leader Samuel Gompers, that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere.” Americans all sighed with relief when they heard or read this. Coolidge made sense and called a halt to the progressive madness.
One of the consequences of the brave governor’s decision was that there were fewer public-sector strikes in the decade that followed. Union membership also dropped in the 1920s. Once Coolidge and Harding, both of whom took a hard line on unions, came into office, unemployment trended down, and it was at 5 percent or below for a number of the years in the 1920s. Here’s a good chart. Wages for skilled workers rose.
LOPEZ: You describe him as “a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts.” Could such a creature win today?
SHLAES: I believe so. We’re in a kind of vicious cycle where the media tell the politicians, and the politicians tell the people, that perception is reality, and the perception of saving dooms a politician. I don’t believe perception is reality, or that all Americans think that.
LOPEZ: What might be Coolidge’s approach to the current “nation of takers” and “47 percent” talk?
SHLAES: Coolidge wasn’t unkind. But he did, like John F. Kennedy, say things like “ask not what your country can do . . . ” So, for that matter, did Warren Harding, who said “we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.”
LOPEZ: How was Coolidge “the great refrainer” and how did he make a “virtue of inaction”?
SHLAES: As he wrote his father in 1910: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than pass good ones.” Coolidge not only believed this, he trained himself in the tools of killing bills.