The Great Refrainer

Reassessing Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes, HarperCollins, 565 pages, $35.

If there was ever a time when the president could simply preside, it has long passed. As early as the Eisenhower era, political scientist Clinton Rossiter observed that the public had come to see the federal chief executive as "a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes." Under the pressure of public demands, the office had accrued a host of responsibilities over and above its constitutional ones: "World Leader," "Protector of the Peace," "Chief Legislator," "Manager of Prosperity," "Voice of the People," and more.

To that daunting portfolio add "Feeler-in-Chief," a term coined in all earnestness by The New York Times's Maureen Dowd in 2010 while lashing out at Barack Obama for being insufficiently emotive about the BP oil spill. Obama, she wrote, had "resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it."

Poor MoDo would have kicked the cat in sheer frustration if confronted by the implacable, inscrutable Calvin Coolidge, whose reaction to the job's more unreasonable demands was a Bartleby-like "I prefer not to."

Shortly after taking office in 1923, Coolidge informed the press that he did not intend "to surrender to every emotional movement" toward executive cures for whatever ails the body politic. In the midst of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which killed hundreds and left some 600,000 Americans homeless, Coolidge resisted calls for federal relief, even refusing a request by NBC that he broadcast a nationwide radio appeal for aid.

In her new biography, Coolidge, Amity Shlaes suggests that in our current era of fiscal and emotional incontinence, we have much to learn from this parsimonious president.

"Debt takes its toll," Coolidge begins. Shlaes underscores that point with an absorbing anecdote about one of Cal's forebears, Oliver Coolidge, who in 1849, for want of 30 bucks to pay off a creditor, suffered through a stint in debtor's prison. "Lame in one leg from birth," Oliver, the brother of the president's great-grandfather, had never been able to farm the rocky land of southeastern Vermont as well as the other Coolidges. And so, at age 61, he found himself behind bars, cursing his brother, sending out "despairing letters to one family member after another."

|||In Shlaes' hands, Oliver's captivity and subsequent redemption—after his release he headed west, where he and his family began new lives—serves as a metaphor for the horrors of debt and the virtue of Yankee perseverance. "The very area that plagued Oliver," debt, saw "the greatest persevering of Calvin Coolidge," Shlaes writes. "Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell"; under Coolidge, after "sixty-seven months in office, the federal government was smaller" than when he'd found it.

Here was "a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president," Shlaes argues. And though history remembers "Silent Cal" mostly for his reticence and frequent napping, Shlaes reminds us that "inaction betrays strength." In politics, it's often easier to "do something," however unwise, than it is to hold firm: "Coolidge is our great refrainer."

Alas, after Coolidge's elegant introduction, the sledding gets much tougher. Long stretches of this 456-page tome read like an info-dump from Shlaes's clearly formidable research files. Like the hardscrabble farmers of Plymouth Notch, you need to set your jaw grimly and persevere through a long winter of sentences that should have been left on the cutting room floor, like: "Coolidge met with [Budget Director Herbert] Lord six times and reduced a tariff on paintbrush handles by half, his second cut that year, the other a reduction in duty on live bob quail." Shlaes should have followed the example of her famously taciturn subject, who in his 1915 opening address as president of the Massachusetts Senate delivered a crisp little homily of 44 words, ending in "above all things, be brief."

Still, the level of detail she provides inspires reflection on the vast gulf between today's GOP and the grand party of old. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge cut taxes and shrank spending. They were pro-peace and anti-wiretapping. They embraced "normalcy" instead of stoking fear. And—go figure—they were also popular. Today's Republicans could profit from studying their example.

Tax cuts were central to Coolidge's legislative program, and he believed, correctly, that under the prevailing conditions (the top rate had crept above 70 percent during WWI) they'd lead to increased revenue. But unlike modern supply-siders, Coolidge attacked the beast head-on, instead of hoping to "starve" it indirectly. "I am for economy," he said in 1924, "after that, I am for more economy." He vetoed farm subsidies and new veterans benefits, and Shlaes reports that he spent a great deal of time "plotting to fend off military spending demands."

The tax cuts that Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon orchestrated took millions of people off the tax rolls. Unlike Mitt Romney, Coolidge and Mellon didn't worry that they'd created a new horde of "takers." By 1927, as it became clear that top earners were providing more revenue at lower rates, Mellon boasted that their policy had transformed the income tax into "a class rather than a national tax."

Coolidge "deemed international law the best approach to prevent war," backing the somewhat quixotic Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw it. Coolidge being Coolidge, he took a green-eyeshades view of the matter: "It pays to be at peace." But peace also allowed greater protection of civil liberties. Coolidge "removed William Burns, the head of the Bureau of Investigation, and curtailed wiretapping, one of Burns's favored tools." (Alas, he replaced Burns with young J. Edgar Hoover.) Coolidge also finished the job of freeing the World War I protestors jailed by Wilson. Harding had pardoned 25, including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. Coolidge ordered the release of Wilson's remaining political prisoners.

An admirable record, particularly considering the shape the country was in after Professor Wilson's reign. Weighed down by debt and wartime controls, plagued by unemployment, the country seemed "lost, if not cursed," Shlaes writes. "Yet within a few years the panic passed and the trouble eased," she says. "The reversal was in good measure due to the perseverance of one man": Coolidge.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Say what you will, his Dogs Playing Poker turned the art world on its ear.

  • Briggie||

    Wasn't that Cassius Coolidge?

  • ||

    I've got the Warren G and Silent Cal album. Beats were dope, but it was irritating when Warren G threw it to Silent Cal and there'd just be a gap in the rap

  • Whiterun Guard||

    He's the mother-flippin' hip-hop-apotamus, his lyrics are bottomless.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...

  • Calvin Coolidge||

    There ain't no party like my Gramma's tea party!

    Heyyyyy, Hoooo, Heyyyy, Hoooo

  • Tak Kak||

    Doesn't Wilson deserve some credit for slashing the budget as well?

  • Jordan||

    That warmonger deserves nothing but scorn.

  • Tak Kak||

    But he slashed the budget!

  • Free Society||

    Right after he blew it up and dove into a world war.

  • Tak Kak||

    Of course, but he was decent enough to dramatically cut afterwards. Harding frequently gets all of the credit for some reason.

  • Loki||

    Any credit he may deserve for cutting spending after the war (as opposed to allowing the war spending to become the new baseline) is wiped out for signing the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Fuck Woodrow Wilson.

  • Tak Kak||

    I really don't understand how your credit system works. Is it based on feelings or something?

  • Astra||

    Was he actively governing at that point, or should we be thanking his wife for cutting the budget?

  • Tak Kak||

    That's possible, but federal expenditures did start declining before his stroke.

  • Free Society||

    Just like after WWII expenditures declined, but only from the peaks of spending, not pre-war spending. Would you say Woodrow Wilson's term in office left us more free or less free?

  • Tak Kak||

    Just about every president has left as less free than the previous, including Harding, so I really can't see the point of your question based on the original point I raised.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Sure, right after he gets the credit he deserves for jailing Eugene V. Debs.

    Wilson was also responsible for setting back racial progress at least two generations. He was scum.

  • An0nB0t||

    And we haven't even brought up the Fed.

    If I had a gun with two bullets and were in a room with Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Wilson, I would shoot Wilson twice.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Tak kak,

    Doesn't Wilson deserve some credit for slashing the budget as well?


    You mean after he blew it to kingdom come, he deserves credit for bringing it a bit down???

  • Tak Kak||

    Yes. Giving it all to Harding (as has been done, particularly in libertarian circles) is simply incorrect.

  • ||

    "An admirable record, particularly considering the shape the country was in after Professor Wilson's reign. Weighed down by debt and wartime controls, plagued by unemployment, the country seemed "lost, if not cursed," Shlaes writes. "Yet within a few years the panic passed and the trouble eased," she says. "The reversal was in good measure due to the perseverance of one man": Coolidge."

    See, there it is. Right there in the history books. Anyone can read it in black and white, in stark terms. To say that the pols today are well meaning, or have the nation's interests in mind is absurd. These fuckers are not well meaning but mistaken, they are evil.

    I look at the current crop of pols and their behavior, listen to their words, and long to see them stretching ropes. Where is our Coolidge? Our Washington? Our Jefferson? Nowhere in sight.

  • Ted S.||

    I'd settle for them all being like William Henry Harrison and dying a month into office.

  • Calvin Coolidge||

    Back in my day, it was considered dishonorable to seem too eager to be president. Not just unseemly, but dangerous. People who spent their lives seeking power were understood to be the worst people to actually entrust with power.

    Today, you need to spend your entire life grooming yourself to be President. You need to avoid, wherever possible, taking actual stands on any controversial issues, lest you offend some part of the party whose platform you run on. You need to avoid any actual accomplishments that could be dredged up and held against you. Then, you need to spend years begging and pleading and fellating your donors for the money you will need just to run for office. If it any wonder we see the constant parade of mediocrity through the White House?

  • Bill||

    What is most important is that they wear their heart on their sleeve, shed crocodile tears, and make a good impression on the talk shows, preferably by singing, dancing, or playing an instrument.

  • Brian from Texas||

    Coolidge is probably the last President this country had who actually had any business being President.

  • Oso Politico||

    +10

  • Bill Dalasio||

    The odious Wilson is a perennial top 10 favorite in the presidential rankings, those "polls by which court historians reward warmarkers and punish the peaceful," as Bill Kauffman recently put it.

    I couldn't agree more with this. Even if you ignore libertarian principles around non-intervention and just focus on the idea of executive efficiency, a truly ideal president would never have the opportunity to "display Presidential leadership". His administration would be, well, boring. They would identify, respond to, and checkmate any potential crisis while it was still in its infancy. To an outside observer (heck, probably to an inside observer) it would look like nothing significant happened during his tenure. But, that would only be because nothing was allowed to rise to the level of significance.

    Businesspeople rightly applaud Steve Jobs for his turnaround of Apple. But this ignores the fact that it was the corporate culture and business model Jobs put in place at Apple that made a turnaround necessary. Doesn't it make more sense to applaud an executive who quietly hammers out a long-term strategy, builds a strong corporate culture, generates consistently superior returns and sees consistent, steady gains in the company's stock?

  • Ted S.||

    But but but... TOP. MEN.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Well, okay. But isn't this what the tippitiest toppitiest man would look like?

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I had two chiefs during my four years in the navy. The first one left the technical matters to the first class (small department) and concentrated on people matters. I pretty much ignored him. His replacement was a jackass; sat around drinking coffee and shooting the shit with his buddies, never did a lick of work, always got in the way, especially making rules for no reason except to push his weight around. It was only then that I realized how smooth the first chief had been, spotting signs of trouble before anyone else, taking people aside and talking with them, straightening things out so smoothly that none of us really recognized it.

  • Loki||

    making rules for no reason except to push his weight around...

    Isn't this the whole point of having AUTHORITAY in the first place? I mean, what's the point of having power if you're not gonna use it to push around everyone "beneath" you? /typical douchebag pol (or cop or anyone else who actively seeks power).

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    I had two chiefs during my four years in the navy. The first one left the technical matters to the first class (small department) and concentrated on people matters.

    This is a pretty consistent lesson throughout military history, especially in the modern era of mass armies and high technology--you have to give your subordinates the freedom to excel or fuck up the details, while maintaining a handle on the big picture. The micromanagers inevitably become overwhelmed by details and lose sight of the mission.

    Commanders like Frederick the Great and Eisenhower intuitively understood this, which made them great generals, while great organizers like McClellan were horrible on the battlefield.

  • Calvin Coolidge||

    When I visit family in Virginia, I drive by signs for the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center. I always wonder if it is populated by drug addicts, or by Progressive historians attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of the man who was re-elected in 1916 because he "kept us out of war". Most likely both, I assume.

  • Sevo||

    ..."I drive by signs for the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center."...
    I'm not sure he could have been rehabilitated.

  • Ted S.||

    Tariffs on paintbrush handles?

    Not that it will make a difference, but it would be good to point out to the people just how many stupid regulations we've got.

  • prs130||

    there was a time when tariffs were Uncle Sam's only revenue source. If only that were still the case.

  • eyeroller||

    Throughout its history, the GOP has been a big-government party. Harding and Coolidge were the exception, not the rule.

  • Moridin||

    Sadly, this ^

  • lap83||

    Throughout its history, the government has been big-government. Small government is the exception, not the rule.

    It's like the power of Sauron's ring. Government wants to be run by dictators. "Understand Frodo, I would use this ring from a desire to do good.."

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Alas, after Coolidge's elegant introduction, the sledding gets much tougher. Long stretches of this 456-page tome read like an info-dump from Shlaes's clearly formidable research files.

    Shlaes certianly has a revisionist way of looking at early 20th century America, but she's not a very focused writer. "The Forgotten Man," for example, starts off strong and then meanders off in directions that stray from her original point.

    Paul Johnson wrote a fantastic summary of Coolidge's presidency in "Modern Times," and that's as good a place to start as any.

  • Randolph34||

    my best friend's mom makes $70/hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for 5 months but last month her income was $18311 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this web site http://www.FLY38.COM

  • ||

    Was this the same site where you could buy pictures of Rex Ryan's wife's feet?

  • Sevo||

    Actually, he's lying.
    His best friend's mom makes some dough, but it ain't on the net, if ya know what I mean...

  • ||

    Well, maybe not with a net, but surely with a hook.

  • Homple||

    "The tax cuts that Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon orchestrated took millions of people off the tax rolls. Unlike Mitt Romney, Coolidge and Mellon didn't worry that they'd created a new horde of 'takers.'"

    Coolidge and Mellon had no need to worry about creating a new horde of takers because in their day there was no significant mechanism to force transfers of wealth from "makers" to "takers", nor was there significant pressure for creating one.

    At least Romney and others have noticed that things are different now.

  • Juice||

    I can understand not sending federal money, but he wouldn't even go on the radio to ask people to help? Huh?

  • Bill||

    It was not necessary. You had thousands of newspapers asking people to help and thousands of radio announcers as well. Today it seems odd but it really should not be necessary and back then it was not as common place.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "To that daunting portfolio add "Feeler-in-Chief," a term coined in all earnestness by The New York Times's Maureen Dowd,"

    I *feel* your pain....

    I increasingly conclude that humanity actually comes in separate species. How any human can *want*, let alone *stand*, these kinds of narcissistic megalomaniac with delusions of godhood is beyond me. The cup of my contempt runneth over. Even contemplating such creatures makes me feel unclean.

  • shake||

    The Coolidge farm estate is about 15 minutes from where I live in VT, I used to think about how boring it appeared, now I appreciate for how normal it is.

  • دردشة عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world
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  • دردشة بغدادية||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world
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  • Lowmetal||

    everyone after Coolidge is trash

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