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"One man"—Coolidge? Poor Warren G. Harding: He's become the Rodney Dangerfield of American presidents. 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. Harding, Wilson's successor, is nearly always dead last. (Was the Teapot Dome scandal really worse than 117,000 dead doughboys?) It pains me to see Warren G. get short shrift here too, especially from an author who appreciates presidential minimalism. Shlaes writes that "Coolidge hacked away at the federal budget with a discipline sadly missing in his well-intentioned predecessor." Harding may not have been the most disciplined of men, but of the two, he was the more accomplished budget-cutter. By the time Coolidge took the oath after Harding's death, federal spending had been cut nearly in half, leading to large government surpluses.
But this is a biography, after all—so what about Coolidge the man? At times Shlaes lets her admiration for her subject drift into hagiography: "Always, a philosophy of service inspired Coolidge," she insists. That's one way of putting it. Another is H.L. Mencken's: "Coolidge is simply a professional politician," he wrote in 1924, and a very "dull one" at that. "He has lived by job-seeking and job-holding all his life; his every thought is that of his miserable trade."
At times, Coolidge makes it hard not to agree with Mencken's harsh assessment. Despite her best efforts, Shlaes's Coolidge often seems like a grim, boring striver, given to expressions as petulant and morose as Morrissey lyrics. Writing to his father from his berth at Amherst College, young Cal groused, "I never earned any money and I do not know as I ever made any happiness." "I am so tired," he signed off in a letter telling a onetime love interest he forgave her rejection.
Clearly, this was a man with a melancholic temperament. It would get worse after the death of his 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., in 1924 from sepsis after developing a blister playing tennis on the White House courts. In his 2003 book The Tormented President, Robert E. Gilbert argues that this tragedy is key to understanding Coolidge's performance in office, which, like most presidential rankers, he views negatively. Cal Jr.'s death left Coolidge "clinically depressed" throughout the bulk of his presidency, Gilbert writes, "a broken man, waiting passively, distractedly, indifferently to lay down the heavy burdens of office."
Interesting, if true. But aside from passing references to Calvin's crabby moods and the distance between him and the first lady, Shlaes isn't terribly interested in the president's psyche.
For my money, she makes too little use of Coolidge's spare and powerful Autobiography. There's a passage therein about the death of his son where Silent Cal's Old WASP reserve cracks just slightly. You can tell that as a dad, he wasn't full of hugs, but the pain and anger that lie under the surface of these words is all the more palpable for his tight-lipped refusal to let it gush forth:
In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.
When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.
The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do.
I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.
Well, the conventional wisdom overvalues presidents who enjoy the job. In his influential 1972 book The Presidential Character, political scientist James David Barber argued that we should pick presidents by their personality type. The "active-positive" president—the ideal voters should seek—tackles the job with manic energy and zest and "gives forth the feeling that he has fun in political life." The "passive-negative" sees the office as a matter of stern duty, and his "tendency is to withdraw." Among Barber's "active-positives" were troublemakers FDR, Truman, and JFK; his "passive-negatives" included the Cincinnatus-like figures Washington, Eisenhower, and, of course, Coolidge. Maybe we should only give the job to people who are so depressed they can barely get out of bed.
Mencken's initial disdain for Coolidge mellowed as the '20s receded. After the ex-president's sudden death from a heart attack in 1933, Mencken eulogized that, for all Coolidge's faults, "the itch to run things did not afflict him....He never made inflammatory speeches....No bughouse professors, sweating fourth-dimensional economics, were received at the White House." After Wilson's reign of terror, Americans wanted peace, "and simple peace was what Dr. Coolidge gave them." Given the "World-Savers" that preceded and followed Cal, "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." There are, Mencken observed, "worse epitaphs for a statesman."