‘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.
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.
As president, Coolidge became a regular Isaac Stern of the pocket veto, and used that obscure veto frequently. In total, he vetoed 50 times, a multiple of what Harding had done before him. Coolidge showed that the best government was the one that got out of the way. When he refrained, the economy grew, the Ku Klux Klan faded, and Americans got Model A’s and automobiles.
LOPEZ: How was “a good budget . . . among the noblest monuments of virtue” in the mind of Coolidge?
SHLAES: Coolidge believed that government officials who tell themselves that spending benefits the economy delude themselves and the citizens. Government budgets promote human freedom. “I want the people to work less for the government and more for themselves,” he said. “I want them to have the rewards of their own industry.” The Tax Foundation today celebrates “tax freedom day”; such a day was also a Coolidge concept.
LOPEZ: Can we learn from Coolidge on immigration?
SHLAES: Not so much. He signed the Johnson-Reed Act, albeit with many misgivings in record to the Asian exclusion component. But there is one area where Coolidge’s immigration policy needs a second look. He believed in the individual, not the group. For example, he repeatedly vetoed laws that would have given Native Americans standing to sue in court. But Coolidge also signed a law that made Native Americans U.S. citizens. You can’t look at the first without considering the second. In other words, Coolidge was not ungenerous to minorities.
One reason Coolidge wanted to restrict immigration was that he suspected large new groups of immigrants would become political blocs.
LOPEZ: Coolidge’s vice president “wrecked” inauguration day. What got into him?
SHLAES: Charles Dawes took a power trip. There was a filibuster problem in the Senate, and Dawes chose to lecture the senators. They were furious.
LOPEZ: Where did Coolidge develop his respect for natural law?
SHLAES: Coolidge was born with respect for natural law. One of his clearest statements on it came in 1914, in his inaugural speech as president of the Massachusetts state senate.
Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of laws.
LOPEZ: How were Coolidge’s “ideas and the culture . . . in harmony”? Could you see those conditions existing again?
SHLAES: Yes, I could.
The Progressive experiment was launched by Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge’s fellow Republican, and continued by President Wilson. But then the experiment halted. Or, one should say, was halted by two Republicans, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge stood athwart history, yelling “Stop.” In that he resembled the founder of National Review. Coolidge vetoed the farm subsidy twice, postponing our modern subsidy for agriculture; he vetoed the bonus for soldiers, a forerunner of Social Security; and he vetoed plans for federal entry into the power sector at Muscle Shoals.
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.
LOPEZ: What surprised you most about Coolidge?
SHLAES: How modern he was. Coolidge and his treasury secretary Mellon loved new technology. Like JFK, C.C. divined that a new technology could lift the nation out of its doldrums; the only difference was that JFK’s new technology was space travel, and Coolidge’s travel by airplane.
I was also surprised by how much Coolidge appreciated networks. Early on, he became obsessed with railroads, in part, perhaps, because all the railroads chose to bypass his town, Plymouth Notch, with devastating consequences.
Final surprise: The parallels to Robert Frost. The two weren’t friends, but their lives crossed at Amherst College and so did their poetry. I’m indebted to Peter Stanlis for this insight. A worthy project would be to bring Coolidge back to Amherst; he’s somewhat obscured there by Frost.
LOPEZ: What were Coolidge’s greatest weaknesses?
SHLAES: Marital jealousy and the tariff.
LOPEZ: How do former president George W. Bush and Laura Bush “inspire”?
SHLAES: In the past year, working at the George W. Bush Foundation, I’ve gotten to know both the former president and first lady. President Bush shares a number of Coolidge’s traits: a visceral understanding of the need for tax cuts, an appreciation of business, a natural humility, and a great affection for his fellow man. Both Bushes love books, as the Coolidges did.
I think the Bushes would have liked President Coolidge, though I often wonder what nickname 43 would pick for 30. President Bush has great respect for his father, and so did President Coolidge, whose father was also in government, albeit in a smaller way.
Mrs. Bush resembles Mrs. Coolidge, or maybe it is the other way around, in their ability to host graciously. Both were teachers. Mrs. Coolidge had a real profession, she was trained to teach the deaf, and she loved libraries, as Mrs. Bush, a librarian, does.
LOPEZ: What could every American afford to learn from Coolidge?
SHLAES: Fame is worth less than service. My favorite period in Coolidge’s life is his time spent in the Black Hills, when, perhaps grossed out by Mount Rushmore, he turned away from the vanity of another presidential term. His tiff with Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum was really about whether a man, in his retiring years, should succumb to vanity, which Coolidge almost did.
Senator Selden Spencer told a story of a walk he took with Coolidge around the White House. Spencer wanted to cheer Coolidge up, so he pointed admiringly to the White House, asking, playfully, “Who lives there?”
“Nobody,” Coolidge replied. “They just come and go.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.