Biography of Calvin Coolidge puts passive president in a fresh light


In the summer of 1927, Calvin Coolidge stunned the nation with a characteristically terse announcement that he would not seek a second full term as president. At the time, he was vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, home of the then-unfinished Mount Rushmore monument. If Amity Shlaes had her way, Coolidge’s cheerless visage would be added to that polished crag. The consensus among historians is that he was a minor president, a “placeholder between Roosevelts.” But in her biography, Shlaes argues that Coolidge’s passivity and tight-fistedness were what was needed to foster an era of apparently endless plenty.

Of course the wild party did come to an end, thanks to a crisis that threatened to destroy the public’s confidence in capitalism. To hear Shlaes tell the story, however, Coolidge had nothing to do with the Great Depression except possibly for predicting it. In a posthumously published memoir, the head of his Secret Service detail claimed that Coolidge was worried that progressives would take advantage of the inevitable stock market downturn to implement harmful fiscal and monetary policies. Nevertheless, he released this statement shortly before leaving office: “The prospect for the immediate future seems to be as good as usual.”

If his bodyguard’s account is true, Coolidge was almost criminally negligent. He not only remained silent about a disaster in the making but also lulled the American people into a false sense of security. But the torch Shlaes carries for him burns ever bright. A member of the conservative intelligentsia, she lauds the non-interventionist stance Coolidge would have pursued after the Crash of 1929. This stance is in keeping with her last book, The Forgotten Man, a controversial indictment of the New Deal that was cited frequently by such congressional Republicans as Paul Ryan during the debate over President Obama’s stimulus package.

Shlaes believes the Depression would have resolved itself fairly quickly if Coolidge’s successors had just left well enough alone. This revisionist thesis has been called into serious question, but still she clings to it. Follow Coolidge’s example, she tells us, not FDR’s. By slashing taxes and the federal debt, Coolidge generated more revenue for the government and lowered the unemployment rate to a virtually nonexistent level. The economy was always at the top of his agenda. He once said, “I dream of balance sheets and sinking funds, and deficits, and tax rates.”

Unfortunately, Shlaes is equally single-minded. We learn more about Coolidge’s penny-pinching obsession with household operations at the White House than the Immigration Act of 1924, a loathsome piece of legislation that barred most non-whites from entering the country for a generation. Shlaes knows this is a problem, so she tells us repeatedly that Coolidge had misgivings about the law. What misgivings, exactly? Only one is mentioned. The president was afraid the Japanese government would be offended. Why then did he sign it? Congressional leaders promised they would push through his tax cut bill. But Shlaes assures us he was nice to his Italian painter.

As for the Negro, as he was then called, Coolidge took no action to ease his plight. Coolidge wasn’t a racist like Woodrow Wilson; he simply refused to cater to special interest groups. “Coolidge always saw his work as freeing the individual rather than the group,” Shlaes writes. This is absurd. How can an individual be free if the group he belongs to is shackled with legal impediments? Coolidge did speak against the Ku Klux Klan, which reached the peak of its power during his presidency, with followers numbering in the millions. But the criticism was tepid. He largely ignored the KKK, whose influence finally began to wane after the conviction of a popular grand dragon for rape and murder.

Shlaes’ anti-government/pro-business bias occasionally shows. She portrays unions as violent and irrational but rarely brings up the crimes perpetrated against striking workers by their corporate bosses. Relief efforts, she feels, should be handled by the states and private enterprise; the feds should back off. This is what Coolidge did during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which devastated an entire region. “The job of the executive branch in such situations was to coordinate, offer limited supplies, and encourage . . . If [Coolidge] looked inhumane, so be it . . . It would do another kind of damage to change precedent.”

The smartest (and luckiest) decision Coolidge made was not to run again for president. If he had, he and not Herbert Hoover would have been the Republican whipping boy for Democrats.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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