Monday, March 25, 2013

Stay Cool with Coolidge? The Real Legacy of "Silent Cal"

A Review of Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013)

Presidential biography season is well under way. The last several years have seen several new studies of George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. These and other Presidents have long been the recipients of copious attentions from biographers, but not all Presidents are so fortunate. Some, like Chester A. Arthur and William Henry Harrison, scarcely ever receive any book-long treatment at all. Most Presidents see a new biography every decade or so. And so, one of this year’s most talked about and, quite possibly, best-selling biographies, is now before us—Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, a prequel/follow-up to her blockbuster reconsideration of the Great Depression and New Deal, The Forgotten Man (2008).[1]


Whenever any writer—historian or not—decides to write a long examination of the life of a man as famous as Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the thirtieth President of the United States, and a man about whom numerous studies and biographies have already been written—including Robert Sobel’s Coolidge: An American Enigma (1998), Robert H. Ferrell’s The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), and David Greenberg’s Calvin Coolidge (2006)—they must justify or explain what new needs to be said. Why now? Why Coolidge? Coolidge, of course, wrote his own discursive account of his life and work while leaving the Presidency—The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929)—and his life and Presidency became the subjects of writers and biographers of all stripes as soon as his main achievements, economy in government and the booming economy, were blown to bits by his immediate successors. One such account appeared in 1938, from the Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge. According to White, studying Coolidge was the fodder of a historical sleuth: “My hypothesis is this: That in the strange, turbulent years that brought an era to a close a man lived in the White House and led the American people who was a perfect throwback to the more primitive days of the Republic, a survival of a spiritual race that has almost passed from the earth. The reaction of this obviously limited but honest, shrewd, sentimental, resolute American primitive to those gorgeous and sophisticated times—his White House years—furnished material for a study of American life as reflected in American business and American politics, which I hope may be worth the perusal of readers who would understand their country in one fine, far day of its pomp and glory.”[2] Coolidge has remained an interesting part of American culture—playing the same role for most Americans’ conception of the 1920s that Eisenhower plays for the 1950s—that of the paternal quiet old man, trusted by most, liked by more, but not extremely well known.


Coolidge, despite the perception of being remembered by few, has never been long out of the spotlight. The New Dealers came to power—and stayed in power—largely on a strident critique of the 1920s and early 1930s—the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover years. The synthetic works of John Kenneth Galbraith are nothing if not a formalized and intellectual trashing of notions of “throwbacks” like Coolidge. An affluent society like the one Coolidge presided over had to be willing to “do more” not less, said the New Dealers. When Ronald Reagan seemingly dusted Coolidge off the floor of forgotten history, he was actually scooping him from a partially covered grave of remembered and much battered villains.


According to Amity Shlaes (syndicated columnist for Bloomberg View and winner of the Hayek and Bastiat Prizes for journalism—as well as a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), a new biography of the Vermont born and raised Amherst graduate who became Governor of Massachusetts, national prominence from ending the first major attempt of an urban police force to strike, and then the Vice-Presidency and Presidency is warranted because of what we might learn of the possibilities for our own problems.

It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government, so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy recipe for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today.[3]

Certainly, on the face of it, a man who directed—or helped direct—the reduction of the national debt from $28 billion to $17.65 billion (a 37% decrease that if replicated at this exact moment would bring the national debt of the United States from $16.74 trillion to $10.55 trillion) seems to have answers for today’s problems.[4] But the curious thing about Shlaes’ biography of “Silent Cal” is that there are virtually no answers. This is, I believe, not her fault, but rather is related to issues which she only peripherally examines but fundamental to explaining the very real oddity that White identified—that the same nation which elected Harding and Coolidge also elected Franklin Roosevelt to office more times than his three predecessors put together.


Part of the problem arises from a methodological issue prevalent among many modern biographers—David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and a great many other of the most able practitioners—a blurred chronological focus on nearly everything. Biographers, unless they purposely set out to write an intellectual biography or a “life and times” of their subjects, often try to give a Herodotean survey of all the facets of the men and women they examine. This means that often as much attention is paid to private personal incidents and relationships as are given to large public episodes and events. Only a brave soul will make the difficult editorial decisions in a one volume biography to pass over or minimize the truly less important events and incidents of a life and withstand the waves of criticism that will arrive from editors and reviewers. Also lost are the grand meta-historical issues related to the biography of a man—such as his philosophy and political thought, that require chronology to be sacrificed for the sake of thematic continuity and examination. These issues are not unique to Shlaes’ account of Calvin Coolidge by any means, but they are certainly not solved and make the answers she hopes her account can provide elusive, if not entirely absent.


A couple of examples from Coolidge’s life and times will illustrate why a purely chronological account of his life is insufficient for getting at anything resembling useful answers in today’s political climate—and also leaves any uninformed reader with surprisingly little understanding of what was going on in the 1920s (or 1910s and 1930s). Take just the language of political description: conservative, liberal, Progressive, Republican, Democrat, etc. The Republican Party, and Coolidge himself, were the primary incubators of late nineteenth-century Progressivism particularly under such party standard bearers as Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, James G. Blaine, Thomas Reed, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was not until Southern populism and Midwestern agrarianism under the likes of William Jennings Bryan offered the Democratic Party an avenue to outflank the GOP for the Progressive vote between 1896 and 1912. We see this in Shlaes’ writing, for instance in a passage on Coolidge’s self-conscious marshaling of his achievements as Governor of Massachusetts: “Many Republicans believed that for a politician to survive he must remain progressive. ... He asked his assistant, Henry Long, to compile a list of progressive legislation he had signed. The laws ranged from a plan regulating weekly pay for injured employees in case of partial incapacity to minimum wages for scrubwomen.”[5] How do we square this with later comments such as: “Then came another thought that was uniquely Coolidge: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” He was, like McCall, beginning to see the extent of the damage that bad legislation could do;” or, “But when it came to the substance, Coolidge was ambivalent; he still considered himself a progressive. That spring he voted for women’s suffrage, the state income tax, a minimum wage for female workers, and salary increases for teachers, thereby preempting territory before Democrats or other new candidates might get to it;” or, “Price controls didn’t work now, either. In addition to respect for the reign of law, the law of markets. “Isn’t it a strange thing,” he asked Barton, “that in every period of social unrest men have the notion that they can pass a law and suspend the operations of economic law?””[6] The most Shlaes can muster for us as far as relates to Coolidge himself is an evolving attitude on economic regulation that was a cornerstone of early twentieth century Progressivism—and its modern analogue.


This evolution, we are told, is generally away from the regulatory state of Franklin Roosevelt and even Herbert Hoover, but then we have to deal with serious problems in that interpretation. One, not covered (or only very quickly) by Shlaes, is President Coolidge’s ease with regulating new technologies—airplanes, cars, and radio. Another is President Coolidge’s firm embrace of protectionism. This was not from lack of inquiry about the results of tariffs—in fact Shlaes keeps some of the leading thinkers of the period perpetually in the background of her narrative, as shown in this passage: “Coolidge rated (William Graham) Sumner “on the whole sound.” But Coolidge was not ready to sign on to Sumner’s philosophy: “I do not think that human existence is quite so much on the basis of dollars and cents as he puts it. ... He nowhere enunciates the principle of service.””[7] Shlaes, while offering an explanation for Coolidge’s adherence to protectionism rooted in his New England experience, is unsympathetic to his conclusions. But how did Coolidge and Republicans square protectionism—which Shlaes correctly points out hurt the farmers of the Midwest and drove increasing numbers of them into the arms of free-trading Democrats—with such notions of government as: “The most important thing now was to free the individual, for, as Coolidge said, “It is our theory that the people own the government, not that the government should own the people.””[8] The people own the government to partition trade advantages among regions of the country?


How about Coolidge’s signing of one of the worst legislative landmarks of the 1920s, the Immigration Act of 1924 (that excluded “undesirable” Japanese and Chinese immigrants entirely from legally moving into the republic and essentially ended most Eastern and Southern European immigration): “Coolidge was willing to go along with restrictionists. “I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted,” he wrote. But he was not hostile to immigrants already in the United States. And he was especially concerned at the widely supported Japanese exclusion provision that many congressmen hope to make law.”[9] Her take on this is that Coolidge was log-rolling in order to get his Republican majorities in House and Senate to go along with tax cuts and economizing in government—but lost is an explanation for why a disconnect existed between Coolidge and his majorities on that point in the first place. Why did Coolidge allegedly have to trade his signature on bills he might otherwise have vetoed—this is Shlaes’ implication, but only for the diplomatic danger of angering the Japanese, which is exactly what occurred—in order to secure passage of tax cuts and economizing in the wake of a war prosecuted and managed by Democrats? No clear or obvious answer emerges.


We might be further confused from the seeming bifurcation of the Republican Party in spite of the argument proffered from Shlaes of Coolidge’s immense popularity and of his policies. For instance, while Hoover swept into the Presidency promising to continue the Coolidge policies, it is clear from Shlaes’ recounting that many Republicans—including Hoover—had major disagreements with Coolidge, as we can see from this passage that makes obvious that Franklin Roosevelt’s activities were neither unpredictable nor even unique to his partisan identity: “Many Republicans, including [William] Borah, were plotting to move the party to the left; Borah had allowed he might back George Norris, who sought federal ownership of hydropower.”[10] Hoover, whom Shlaes argues Coolidge did not like—despite keeping him in his Cabinet and deploying him to advantage during natural disasters—was not adverse to these “elastic” notions of government power and intervention. That Robert La Follette (1855-1925) bolted the Republican Party in 1924 to run as the Progressive Party’s candidate against Coolidge did not necessitate a divorce between the GOP and Progressivism—which is why La Follette completely failed to replicate the split Theodore Roosevelt caused in the election of 1912.


What is truly interesting about Coolidge and the period of American politics that he inhabited and represented, the roaring twenties and Prohibition—it is nearly unaccountable how little discussion there is in this biography about Prohibition, the enforcement of which fell mostly heavily on Calvin Coolidge and that greatly expanded the pernicious tentacles of Federal power to every corner of the nation through the enforcement carried out by Federal agents largely under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was its transitional nature. The great “flip” in the roles of the political parties was occurring and maturing during this very period—though the truly interesting part of the tale was on the Democratic side and we get very little of that here. Coolidge, while a “throwback” in some regards, was mostly a “throwback” to what the Democratic Party used to be under the auspices of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Grover Cleveland—and even there only in part. Coolidge’s record of cutting the Federal Budget, the debt, and the size of the Government workforce (there is a difference between that and restraining its power and scope, which Coolidge achieved very little towards) was and is admirable, but as Shlaes makes clear—as she must—this was ephemeral. Hoover blasted these achievements into bits immediately and Franklin Roosevelt so obliterated any trace of them that observers had to wonder how the same country had elected Coolidge and Roosevelt only eight years apart.


So what are the answers? How do we now take anything of value from the story of Calvin Coolidge and cutting the budget and debt—other than simply knowing it was once done? What did Coolidge cut and why? What did he see as government’s proper role and why? How did he square either of those answers with his own actions in office which sometimes tended toward greater liberalism and sometimes towards the greater statism on the horizon? Did he renounce the Progressive wing of his party or any of its standard-bearers? How did he square Theodore Roosevelt’s notions of government activism with his own? Or is the better question: Did he have to do so? The greatest reason why we cannot cut our humongous budget deficit (one of the book’s funnier passages relates to Coolidge’s angry frustration with the advent of a $37 million deficit at the end of his term) let alone reduce our mind-boggling national debt, relates to the widespread acceptance of a notion of government interventionism that Coolidge did, indeed, have issues with.[11] But does his story offer us an antidote to that acceptance—based in notions of “service” that Coolidge may have agreed with in large part? Did he ever articulate a full-throated case against economic interventionism? Or a defense of limited government—why it was necessary and what it was meant to do? So far as anyone can tell from Shlaes’ book, the answer is no—and that is the correct answer. Why, then, write a straight biography of such a person if the goal is offer some path to future prosperity and economic growth? The heavy lifting of the changes necessary to preserve liberty and fiscal sanity has to be done with ammunition a bit more potent than simply pointing to a brief transitional period in American political history—after a war and major military build-up (the disconcerting thing here is that Shlaes could have written a similar account of Harry Truman’s Presidency in more ways than just that point)—where the budget and national debt were reduced. Coolidge running for President today would lose because he would react in horror to the post-World War II welfare state consensus, the precise reason why Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey all lost the elections of 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948. Only when General Eisenhower moved the party progressively and firmly into the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s “bold experimentation” did the Republican Party re-emerge. Even the great Coolidge booster, Reagan, was a Roosevelt man in the 1930s.


Americans are all New Dealers now. Coolidge’s encomium to Vermont recounted in the book during his visit to the State of his birth after a natural disaster is hardly understandable now: “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all I love her because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who almost impoverished themselves for a love of others. If ever the spirit of liberty should vanish from the rest of the Union, it could be restored by the generous store held by the people in this brave little state of Vermont.”[12] If we are waiting for liberty’s defense to emanate from the state of Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy, and Howard Dean we are in serious trouble. Coolidge, of course, did not live to see or offer an alternative to the New Deal—but he saw it coming and offered nothing to stop it except Herbert Hoover, whose rise could not have happened without Coolidge’s patronage and withdrawal from office.


That Coolidge was an interesting figure with laudable ideas, goals, and achievements is undeniable—and Shlaes’ biography reminds us all of that and informs those new to him of it—but that has always been the case while never promoting any of his ideas in contemporary policy debates. While the American people continue to demand their cake after the eating, on the dime of whatever despised minority getting the short-end of the stick, the good that Coolidge did will continue not to live after him. That disposition and attitude has to be countered by an antipode that did not exist in Coolidge’s day and one that Coolidge may very well have disagreed with—a bold defense of liberty, economic and personal. A defense of liberty and capitalism as the only moral system in the world—a system based on defending individual rights from the initiation of force as the reason, the only reason, for government to exist. Only as such ideas begin winning the debate for the consciences of the American people, can the role of government contract and, with it, our never-ending budget deficits and unfathomable sea of national debt.

-- A republican

[1] Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008); Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).
[2] William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (The Macmillan Company, 1938; Easton Press reprint, 1986), v-vi.
[3] Shlaes, Coolidge, 12.
[4] Ibid, 349, 419.
[5] Ibid, 177.
[6] Ibid, 110, 114, 191.
[7] Ibid, 192.
[8] Ibid, 318.
[9] Ibid, 268.
[10] Ibid, 395-396.
[11] Ibid, 428.
[12] Ibid, 430.