The day that Coolidge died, Muscle Shoals was in the news again — the president-elect, Franklin Roosevelt, had visited there, and clearly planned large federal intervention into the power industry. Seeing this would not have pleased Coolidge. He told friends that the next era was not one he understood, that “I no longer fit in with these times.” A common problem in retirement, alas. You don’t live to see the day when people appreciate you.
LOPEZ: “Protecting the space that faith enjoyed in American culture, the realm of the spiritual, seemed to him especially important.” How so? And why? How can we learn from that today?
SHLAES: Today many politicians suggest that where the federal government does not act, there must be anarchy. That view is odd, blinkering out the work of state and towns, which until recently did much of our charitable and cultural work. That view also blinkers out the role of mutual societies and churches, as David Beito chronicles so tellingly in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, one of my favorite books. Our conscience, our faith, our local community, even our online hobby clubs — all civilize us. Coolidge understood that.
LOPEZ: “Coolidge’s is not a story of ‘Yes, but.’ It is a story of ‘But, yes.’” What helped him say yes in that way?
SHLAES: Tragedies challenged Coolidge at all stages of his life, but the greatest was the unexpected death of his 16-year-old son Calvin in the summer of 1923. One week, Calvin was playing on the White House court; a week later he was dead at Walter Reed Hospital. Coolidge’s religious faith helped him after the death of his son. Coolidge was not “churchy” — his wife led when it came to church, and it was she who brought them to the Edwards Church in Northampton. But Coolidge believed that government should not impinge upon the realm of the spiritual.
LOPEZ: Your narrative reads like you lived with the guy, from his school-days insecurities to the end. How much time and work does that take? What’s your daily process like?
SHLAES: Anything can be done if you find friends to do it with. The lucky biographers find themselves drawn into a sort of friendship with their subject. I am grateful to Calvin Coolidge that he indulged me: He is normally a kind of private guy.
The Community of Coolidge helped me write this book. Researcher Joanne Dooley made the remarkable discoveries of the Coolidge family material, including that the Coolidges had a kind of sad tragedy in their background; one ancestor, Oliver Coolidge, landed in prison, at least for a few days, due to troubles involving debt. A few other names warrant mention: Cal Thomas, the columnist, a relative of the Coolidges, was an ally from the get-go; and radio host John Batchelor, who is also kin of Coolidge. I couldn’t have done this work without Nikolai Krylov, who delved into all aspects of Coolidge’s life and improved the text immeasurably. Much encouragement on hard days came from Jerry Wallace, a former archivist at the National Archives, and from a neighbor of the Coolidges in Plymouth Notch, James Ottaway. Coolidge has a friend in David Pietrusza, a Coolidge scholar and author/editor of Silent Cal’s Almanack. Thanks are also due to Mimi Baird, David Serra, Barbara O’Connell, Robert Kirby, Gerry Jones, and Andy Kostanecki from the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, where I am a trustee, and to Tim Duggan, the editor who waited a year longer than he expected to for this book. The Coolidge family, especially Jenny Harville and Chris Jeter, helped this book, as did Julie Nelson at the Forbes Library and archivist Peter Nelson at Amherst.
This is not the only Coolidge book coming out, it’s worth stressing. Recently the National Notary Association published a wonderful anthology, Why Coolidge Matters. David Pietrusza published the Almanack recently, and an alum of Claremont College, Charles Johnson, has a book on Coolidge’s relevance to today coming out, as well.