With the federal debt over $16 trillion and the prospect of lowering it remote, conservatives have turned their attention to the last president who accomplished what now seems to be an incomprehensible feat: a decrease in the federal budget and national debt. No, not even Reagan mastered this, but he indeed revered the one who did.
In his youth, Coolidge might not have seemed destined for greatness. If anything, his life seemed predetermined for a simple agrarian life. His success was one of slow and calculated progress: he struggled in both boarding school and his Amherst courses (even falling asleep in class), but he read fervently, studied Cicero’s oratory with alacrity, and eventually learned to complete his work diligently.
Coolidge’s entrance into the Massachusetts political life was as gradual as his academic success, but his persistence eventually led to his election as governor in 1918. From his personal frugality in renting a house rather than buying to his scrupulosity over the state budget, he garnered the respect of his fellow Massachusettsans, but he also fostered within himself what few politicians attempt to acquire: the ability to say no.
It is this point that Amity Shlaes makes so unabashedly in her new book, Coolidge. The shortness of the title fits well with the thirtieth president himself – a man who avoided careless speech, but who also defined things as they ought to be defined. Shlaes’ book does just that: it examines Coolidge for what he was, in his entirety, and illuminates how his temperament guided his presidency.
Shlaes presents a strong case for not mistaking Calvin’s coolness as a weakness. Instead, she argues, it was his quiet deliberation accompanied by his uprightness that produced a noble president. Coolidge believed, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” and he lived by this as he vetoed 50 bills, rejected subsidies that would help farmers from his own town, and decreased the debt by 50 percent. But his resolve was not based in stinginess as much as it was rooted in his moral resolve, for Coolidge did not institute any policies that he himself did not follow. In the White House, he cut the food budget by 17 percent, minimized parties, and abided by the prohibition amendment, all of which could not be said for his predecessor. Shlaes’ recalls that a senator once pointed to the White House and jokingly asked President Coolidge who lived there. “Nobody,” he replied, “they just come and go.”
Coolidge’s answer epitomizes his understanding of government and his reverence for the office. As he recognized, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” He believed that his role was limited, and though he was very willing to use his position to enact policies that would help the economy he advocated a smaller federal government to promote a flourishing society.
By saying no, Shlaes argues, he said yes. At a time when Progressive ideals enticed many politicians to expand government and give into citizen’s plea for more services, Coolidge reined in union power, government spending, and tax rates. Coolidge believed government expansion was a moral decision, and one that led to indulgence and poverty. “Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery,” Coolidge proclaimed.
At times, Shlaes’ analysis does seem to scold the current excessive government spending and perhaps even use Coolidge as an example of what we should hope to attain, but this undercurrent remains just that, never gaining so much momentum to distract from Coolidge himself.
Shlaes’ book narrates Coolidge’s life with enough detail and anecdotal evidence to substantiate her analysis and familiarize the reader with this unknown president. Several books have been written on Cool Cal in the recent decades, but none have focused so much on his temperament and the ways in which that shaped his presidency. This makes the book more than a mere defense of his fiscal policies or anti-union stance; it is a celebration of his virtue. Shlaes, however, is careful to also detail Coolidge’s personal flaws and policy failures. She notes, for instance, that his temper sometimes inflamed his level-headedness and his tariff policy simply didn’t work. In this way, she does not neglect his struggles. She lets Coolidge stand as a man, and a man who served his country well, due to his perseverance and practiced diligence.
Shlaes artfully unfolds the ways in which Coolidge’s personality matched the role of a just president: one who was not afraid to be disliked if it spared the people from their own imprudence, one who limited his own power in order to liberate the people, and one who upheld the law above personal privilege. We ought to appreciate Coolidge for his “no,” and thank Shlaes for reminding us of the virtue in this two-letter word.
Brittany Baldwin manages the George Washington Fellowship Program at Hillsdale College. Coolidge image courtesy of The White House.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl