‘Even when small, the boy saw politics firsthand,” Amity Shlaes writes of Calvin Coolidge. “At town meetings, it was his father who worked or spoke; Calvin sold apples and popcorn at the meetings, as his father had before him. The villagers noticed early that Calvin was always quiet; when someone played the violin, he would not dance, but was always observant.” Good thing he discovered early on that “politics somehow afforded distraction from loneliness,” because that diligence would serve the 30th president of the United States well. Shlaes, author of the new book Coolidge, talks to National Review Online about Coolidge and what we might learn from him.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so cool about Coolidge?
AMITY SHLAES: Today we care about budgets more than anything. Our American future hangs on the ability of government to cut budget.
Coolidge cut the budget, and even better, cut it during peace and prosperity. He left a federal budget lower than the one that greeted him when he arrived in office. He managed to freeze or cut the budget over more than five years in office. If you look at charts of presidents — Nixon, Ike, and Reagan — you see them failing on this score.
What else is cool? Coolidge was a pragmatist. He didn’t start out with a tax theory. But he observed over time that lower tax rates sometimes brought in extra revenue. The success of his and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s experiment with rate cuts has been obscured by our modern history books. But that success was real, and it was fun to get close to it. A book to read after Coolidge? Taxation: The People’s Business, by Mellon.
LOPEZ: What drew you to him?
SHLAES: First: Coolidge is the forgotten president, and this book is the prequel to my book on the 1930s, The Forgotten Man. If Coolidge were a stock, he’d be a buy. The experts have historically ranked Coolidge in the bottom quartile or bottom half of all presidents. But his economic performance and his statesmanship suggest Coolidge belongs in the top quarter of presidents. The disparity between the Coolidge price and Coolidge value is huge. So revision is warranted.
Second: The economics. We know that the economic theory of those days was different. Then, bankers, business people, teachers, journalists, and, yes, even some farmers believed that money must be stable, and that the individual mattered more than the aggregate. Macroeconomic theory didn’t really exist, and if people like Calvin Coolidge had heard about it, they would have been suspicious. Their theories yielded some pretty good results: There was strong growth under the gold standard, as studies at the Bank of England have shown. But making the case for pre-Keynesian economics would be dry work. So instead I tried to convey what they knew through someone from their time, a president. Coolidge is an economic bildungsroman — “The Education of Calvin Coolidge.”
Third: Coolidge was the pre-incarnation of Robert L. Bartley, the late editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Both had that combination of political wisdom, city wisdom, and farmer wisdom. Coolidge was from Vermont; Bartley from Ames, Iowa. Both rationed their words. But both had a wonderful sense of humor: As far as I can tell, Coolidge even cackled like Bartley. Since I worked for Bartley for 17 years, meeting Coolidge on paper or video was a shock. Here was a man I already knew.