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.
Coolidge learned these virtues growing up in the remote hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Two presidents have died on Independence Day (Adams and Jefferson), but Coolidge is the only one to have been born on it: July 4, 1872. His storekeeping father sacrificed much to put his single son through Black River Academy and Amherst College, and then to send remittances as Coolidge studied for the bar and set up his law office in Northampton. Sobel reports that Coolidge even received this financial assistance at the age of 34, following his marriage and the birth of his first son--something that must have gnawed at the man who once remarked, "Anybody who is not capable of supporting himself is not fit for self-government."
Coolidge won 19 of 20 races for public office, starting with an
for the Northampton City Council. He worked his way up the political ladder in Massachusetts with a striking deliberateness, moving first into the state legislature, next heading the state senate, then becoming lieutenant governor, and finally rising to governor. Like many Republicans during these years, Coolidge was something of a Progressive, supporting minimum wage laws, a six-day work week, women's suffrage, and the direct election of senators. Part of this was sincere --few political figures were immune to the Progressive bug in the first part of the century--but much of it also grew from Coolidge's impulse to win broad constituencies. Before there were Reagan Democrats, notes Sobel, there were Coolidge Democrats. Moreover, Coolidge wanted to repair the breach in the GOP that erupted in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt bolted the party and helped Woodrow Wilson win an election with only a plurality of the vote.
Coolidge had stuck with the doomed incumbent, President William Howard Taft, but held no grudges. He could mix with Progressives and occasionally might even govern like one. At bottom, however, he was the last Republican president to hark back to the party's pre-Progressive roots in any significant way. All his life Coolidge was a consummate party builder, even reaching across racial lines when it wasn't a popular thing to do: In an unusual political decision for a president in 1924, he gave the commencement address to the all-black Howard University.
In 1920, the GOP tapped Gov. Coolidge to run for vice president alongside Ohio Sen. Warren Harding. Coolidge had risen to national prominence a year earlier for his handling of a police strike in Boston, when he forthrightly supported firing the strikers. "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime," he declared, in words that made him almost a household name. The Harding-Coolidge ticket went on to beat Democrats James Cox and FDR. Wags called the 1920 race a "kangaroo election" because the hind legs (vice presidential candidates Coolidge and Roosevelt) were stronger than the front ones.
Coolidge was a serendipitous choice. Republican Party bosses probably would have dumped him for another candidate in 1924 (a common practice at the time). Instead, he became an accidental president and then easily won an election in his own right. (He would have coasted to victory again in 1928, but decided to retire instead.) As a man of uncommon moral character, Coolidge appeared on the national scene at precisely the right moment. The ethics of his immediate predecessor, Warren Harding, are best described as Clintonesque: a reckless personal life compounded by a bevy of home-state friends who conspired to enrich themselves at public expense. Harding was enormously popular when he died, but postmortem revelations about his personal life and the behavior of his political appointees might have done lasting damage to the office of the presidency if it hadn't been for Coolidge's confident and careful leadership.
Despite all of this, Nathan Miller ranks Coolidge the seventh-worst president in his entertaining but unreliable book Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents. His chief allegation against Coolidge is that he "did less work than any other American president in history"--i.e., he didn't create some big government program as his legacy. He also accuses Coolidge of not preventing the Depression, which would strike less than a year after he left office. There's some fairness to this charge--in 1928, Coolidge made the unfortunate statement that he "wouldn't happen to know anything about" how the Federal Reserve Board sets interest rates--but quite a bit of unfairness, too. Economic historians today still aren't entirely sure what caused the Depression and what might have been done to prevent it. Why must Coolidge shoulder the blame for not predicting what the so-called experts still can't figure out nearly 70 years later?
But Miller's errors are even more egregious. He denigrates Coolidge as a man who did not possess "a wide-ranging mind," but several pages later acknowledges that Coolidge translated Dante's Inferno into English. It makes one wonder how Miller spends his own free time. Certainly not studying Coolidge's own writings and speeches: Miller misquotes one of his target's best-known remarks, recasting the statement "The chief business of the American people is business" as "The business of America is business." He seems entirely ignorant of what the speech was really about--the importance of a free press--and totally unaware of the moral context in which Coolidge framed his remarks. In the same talk, he said: "It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more," including peace, honor, charity, and idealism. Miller's scholarly sloppiness is inexcusable, but hardly uncommon. As Thomas Silver revealed in his 1982 book Coolidge and the Historians, the 30th president has received fundamentally unfair treatment almost from the day he left office.
Historian Richard Norton Smith says presidents who are rated as outstanding tend to be those who supplied great conflict and drama; whether they actually advanced the interests of their country is a secondary concern. The famously quiet Coolidge certainly wasn't a dramatic figure. He had none of the delusions of grandeur that have afflicted so many other presidents, and may have been the humblest person ever to occupy the office. He performed his job sensibly and well. A neighbor once remarked that "Calvin never takes a chance and strikes out, and never hits a home run. A base hit is his limit. He'll make that every time." But like a shortstop who hits .300, always puts the ball in play, and doesn't make many errors, he's a valuable veteran, if often overlooked.
When Coolidge died in 1933, some of his severest critics reflected on his time in office with a fondness they didn't have for him when he served. The poison-penned H.L. Mencken wrote these generous words: "He begins to seem, in retrospect, an extremely comfortable and even praiseworthy citizen. His failings are forgotten; the country remembers only the grateful fact that he let it alone. Well, there are worse epitaphs for a statesman. If the day ever comes when Jefferson's warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Cal's bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service." The new books by Sobel and Ferrell should encourage the sort of re-evaluation that Mencken had in mind. It's about time.