Coolidge: An American Enigma, by Robert Sobel, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 462 pages, $34.95
The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, by Robert H. Ferrell, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 244 pages, $29.95
Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents, by Nathan Miller, New York: Scribner, 272 pages, $23.00
"I believe I can swing it," deadpanned Calvin Coolidge 75 years ago, on the night that he was sworn in as president, following the sudden death of Warren Harding. Since then, however, most historians have frowned on the Republican. Several times over the last half-century, the father-son duo Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have asked their fellow professors to rank America's chief executives. These academics always deem Coolidge "below average"--in other words, they think he's about as accomplished as the dithering Millard Fillmore. Cool Cal didn't do much better in a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 "distinguished historians"; they placed him immediately behind Jimmy Carter. In the 1997 Ridings-McIver survey of historians and former politicians, Coolidge came in at number 33, right below Richard Nixon.
The man deserves better. He is America's most underappreciated president, a tax-cutting, budget-slashing politician whose very name became synonymous with the fast-growing 1920s economy: "Coolidge Prosperity," they called it. Coolidge stood defiantly as an anti-Progressive between two activist eras, the first led by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the second by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That's the real reason so many modern academics dislike him: Coolidge didn't participate in the onward march of an ever-growing government. In fact, he actively resisted it. "The people cannot look to legislation generally for success," he said in one of his most famous speeches. "Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil."
It's an anachronism to call Coolidge America's first libertarian president; it's also not an apt label for a politician who favored trade barriers and cut immigration levels. But perhaps this Republican comes close enough for government work. He's certainly the kind of leader the United States could use today. And now, after decades of taking partisan political knocks from New Deal court historians such as the Schlesingers, he has started to receive a much-needed reassessment in two important and level-headed books, Robert Sobel's Coolidge: An American Enigma and Robert H. Ferrell's The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Sobel offers a traditional biography of an often inscrutable man; Ferrell focuses almost exclusively on Coolidge's presidential administration. Both efforts are welcome.
The Coolidge years marked a transitional time for the United States, with technological advances improving the lives of ordinary citizens in dramatic ways. While he was president, automobile registrations tripled and phone ownership grew rapidly. The first suburbs appeared, and skyscrapers began to dot the urban landscape. Motion pictures suddenly played sound; they became known as the "talkies," and theater attendance skyrocketed. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, exciting imaginations everywhere.
Coolidge himself seemed to stand on the cusp of the modern era, a mixture of old and new. He was the last president who never flew in an airplane. He didn't own a car until he left office, and even then he didn't drive it. Yet he was a radio pioneer. The new medium--it broadcast a political convention for the first time in 1924, when Coolidge was renominated by the GOP--allowed him to overcome his lifelong handicap as a crummy stump speaker. ("McCall could fill any hall in Massachusetts and Coolidge could empty it," wrote one critic, referring to Coolidge's candidacy for lieutenant governor and his ticket mate, Samuel McCall, in 1916.) His reedy voice, in fact, was ideal for the airwaves; he delivered 16 radio addresses in five years.
Although he instinctively recoiled from the glad-handing that most successful politicians thrive on--no fraternity at Amherst College would accept him when he first rushed--Coolidge embodied a very genuine kind of populism that the age of electronic media would soon destroy. He was, for example, the last president to write his own speeches or spend a significant amount of time in the traditional activity of greeting anonymous White House visitors and passers-by with a quick handshake. He was also the first president to hold regular press conferences with newspaper reporters, although he insisted that most of these meetings be off the record.
Instead of trying to tinker with the economy or control emerging industries with new rules of conduct, Coolidge had the basic good sense to leave well enough alone. "It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones," he said early in his career, and these words animated much of his public life, especially his presidency. One of his important achievements was helping defeat a popular crop subsidy bill which would have encouraged farmers to increase production and demand more government support in an escalating spiral of dependency. Coolidge mocked social engineers--including his own commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, who would succeed him in 1929--as "world beaters" and "wonder boys."
Between 1923 and 1928, Coolidge's first year and last full year in office, he accomplished a feat that seems unbelievable at the end of the century: Federal spending didn't increase. It remained steady at $3.3 billion, even though military expenditures rose slightly. "The Coolidge era was a time of small government, evident in the nearly complete lack of federal social programs," writes Ferrell. Furthermore, regulation "was thin to the point of invisibility." The number of federal employees crept upward from 537,000 to 561,000 under Coolidge's watch, but most of this hiring was by the Post Office, which was trying to keep up with a growing population. Among Washington bureaucrats, the federal payroll actually dropped from 70,000 to 65,000.
Coolidge managed to cut taxes several times and in several ways. He was especially eager to reduce the income tax burden on top earners, in the belief that freeing their capital for investment would help ordinary workers. He didn't call it "trickle-down economics," but that's what he meant. He also thought a stronger national economy propelled by reduced taxes would help the government's bottom line. "I am convinced that the larger incomes of the country would actually yield more revenue to the government if the basis of taxation were scientifically revised downward," he said in his 1924 State of the Union address. Congress always fought him on the cuts, but Coolidge successfully pushed for a series of reductions. Government receipts stayed even at $3.9 billion during his tenure, bearing out his belief that higher tax rates do not necessarily generate higher revenue.
This doesn't mean that today's supply-siders should claim Coolidge as an early member of their club. He was a fierce budget hawk who consistently used revenue surpluses to pay down the national debt, which mushroomed during World War I. "While I am exceedingly interested in having tax reduction," he said in 1927, "it can only be brought about as a result of economy, and therefore it seems to me that the Chamber of Commerce and all others that are interested in tax reduction ought to be first of all bending their energies to see that no unwise expenditures are authorized by the government, and that every possible effort is put forth to keep our expenditures down, and pay off our debt, so that we can have tax reduction."
As much as Coolidge disliked high taxes, he considered a large national debt an even greater evil. Retiring it was "the predominant necessity of the country," he said, "the very largest internal improvement... possible to conceive." During his presidency, the debt shrank more than 20 percent, from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion.
This animus toward debt grew out of Coolidge's personal frugality, which was legendary. When enemies tried to smear Coolidge by linking him to the Harding administration's corrupt Teapot Dome scheme, the simple and obvious fact that he didn't live in high style served as a ready witness. Early in his career, Coolidge refused to accept a salary higher than the one his office received on election day. He didn't own a home until after he was president. For most of his political career he rented a seven-room duplex in Northampton, Massachusetts, moving out of it only when his quasi-celebrity status as an ex-president drove him to seek more privacy. Coolidge wasn't a scrooge; he just believed in living honestly and within his means. When a cosmetics company approached the former president about having his wife, Grace, give an endorsement for a large sum, Coolidge wrote back, Sorry, she doesn't use your product. The novelist Charles McCarry tells an old family story about Coolidge as ex-president. On a summer day, Coolidge borrowed a match from McCarry's grandfather in Northampton. That fall, they bumped into each other again on Main Street. Coolidge said, "Hello, Will, here's the match I owe you," and handed a brand-new kitchen match to an astonished recipient.