Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States (and only the sixth vice-president to assume the role following the death of a sitting president) has become, as economist-turned-author Amity Shlaes puts it, “the forgotten president” in her new succinctly titled biography, Coolidge. This is a reference to her own book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression”, a scathing indictment of presidents Hoover and Roosevelt and the New Deal policies she feels exacerbated the Great Depression, and to which she considers her new book a sort of prequel.
It’s a history that has largely been ignored, so some say, by liberal historians far more enchanted by the idealism of Franklin Roosevelt and other bits of the post-Progressive Era that literally saw the world change in real-time, one of tyrants, titans, of social and economic malaise. For Shlaes, respected columnist and author, as well as serving on the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation Board of Trustees, this is second nature stuff. But how does one reconcile the history of a man, popular in his own time, with a generation that could, in Shlaes’ opinion, learn a few lessons from?
For many, Coolidge remains a president who is, at best, forgotten and, at worst, a predecessor to George W. Bush, an incompetent steward whose hands-off policies led to economic disaster. For them, it’s a history that has been largely debated, and settled; end of discussion. That she would attempt to present Coolidge in a different context is worthy of admiration, if only for the Herculean task itself.
It’s a tough row to hoe. Americans tend to prefer their historical personalities big and set in big times. Calvin Coolidge, sandwiched between the enormous personalities of Ruff Ryder Teddy Roosevelt, who famously continued delivering a speech after surviving a would-be assassin’s bullet, the US’s entry into the first World War, and reign of a polio-stricken Franklin D. Roosevelt (cousin to Teddy) set during the Great Depression and Second World War. That the soft-spoken Vermonter could hardly measure up doesn’t come as a surprise, and it would be understandable if the public-at-large had trouble recalling much of “Silent Cal”, as his realm lay mostly in the world of laissez-faire economics.
I suspect it will be near-impossible to ask for an honest assessment of Coolidge or of his achievements (and failures) in this age of openly hostile hyper-partisanship, and that includes much of Shlaes’ biography. There’s little critical analysis of either the man or the impact of his policies during or after his tenure, or even much of an attempt to trace the origins of his thinking, apart from suggesting their inspiration by his father or Amherst professor Charles Garman’s radical ideas on group happiness.
There’s an effort to graft Coolidge in places, to graft a certain human nobility to his persona that might make him more endearing. Shlaes presents Coolidge left with the unenviable task, first as Warren G. Harding’s second then during his own administration, of restoring faith in the office following Woodrow Wilson’s controversial tenure. In this context she plays up Coolidge’s decision to serve only two terms, attempting to forget not just a connective link but consequence of action between Washington, the country’s father who “pined for the rest of a quiet home” and Teddy Roosevelt, whose reemergence after pledging to not seek a third term created a schism in the Republican Party that, effectively, lead to Wilson’s election..
Shlaes is a conservative economist and approaches history as such, preferring to explore the intellectual roots of Coolidge’s persona in a fashion more straightforward and linear than some might like, especially those expecting all the saucy details and personal failings we’ve come to expect from modern biographies. This distancing, while appreciable on some level, often reads more like cheerleading Cliff Notes on the man and his era than an exhaustive and analysis.
Shlaes navigates through the labyrinth worlds of economic theory with ease, doing a fine job of making many of the more obtuse numerical minutiae palatable to those of us who might scratch our heads at a monthly bank statement. Her most persistent argument is that, rather than help cause it, Coolidge’s hands-off policies helped stave off the Great Depression, which is presented as inevitable and was encouraged by interventionist meddling by the subsequent administrations of Hoover and Roosevelt.
About the closest we get to an actual critique happens right in the introduction, as Shlaes’ describes Coolidge’s life as “chapters of near failure upon near failure”, marking him an almost-man of almost-successes:
“Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921.
As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders.”
Running throughout Shlaes’ biography is the sense of reclamation of Coolidge for today’s Grand Old Party, one badly in need of a paragon of free-market ideals and small-government solutions, even positioning the 30th president as a missing link between conservative heroes Reagan (who championed Coolidge) and Lincoln (who Coolidge admired greatly). On this point it does a fine job presenting an overview of a man more renown for policy than personality. On reconciliation for the great good: “To reorient…Coolidge and other Republicans had to look past Taft or Roosevelt, maybe all the way past, to their own evening star. To succeed now, the Republicans had to show they were still the party of Lincoln.” Sage advice that might serve today’s leaders well as a parable of crisis-management in dire economic times, conservative or otherwise.
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