Henry Mencken, who scorched most American presidents in his writings, lowered the temperature a bit when he wrote about President Calvin Coolidge: “Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver [Woodrow Wilson] and followed by two more [Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt]. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”
Mencken was mostly right about Mr. Coolidge: There were no thrills while he reigned because he attended diligently and persistently to the sometimes quiet but always necessary and indispensable tasks of the presidential office. “Never go out to meet trouble,” Coolidge advised. “If you just sit still, nine cases out of ten, someone will intercept it before it reaches you.”While a very good public speaker, Mr. Coolidge was the opposite of a publicity seeking politician. He was no fiery Teddy Roosevelt, still less a world conquering intellectual like Princeton’s Wilson.
In the post-World War I period, the United States was swimming in debt. The national debt, an astounding 28 billion -- nine times the pre-war debt -- was hanging like a damoclean sword over the country.
Enter President Warren Harding, movie star handsome and determined to return the country to what he called “normalcy.” On economic issues, Amity Shales told a group gathered under the banner of the Yankee Institute in Stamford, Mr. Harding’s mind was in the right place, but his wastrel heart wandered. In no time at all, Mr. Harding was swallowed by the Great White Whale. In Washington, it is never your enemies you have to worry about, especially if you keep them close to your chest. Mr. Harding, the crony capitalist of his day, was never able to put a ten foot pole between himself and the beltway barnacles; before you could say “Teapot Dome,” he was up to his knees in friends who “came to Washington to help” -- themselves.
Mr. Harding -- about whom Alice Longworth Roosevelt, the witty daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt, NEVER would have quipped that he had been “weaned on a dill pickle” – had the good grace to die in office shortly after the top blew off Tea Pot Dome. Mr. Harding’s Vice President, “Silent Cal,” armed with the commonsensical prescriptions of the Harding administration minus the peculation, was then sworn into office, and it was the non-show horse who put the roar into the “Roaring 20’s.”
Said Cal, “We need more of the Office Desk and less of the Show Window in politics. Let men in office substitute the midnight oil for the limelight.” He and his equally silent partner, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, proceeded to do just that.
Much like President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Coolidge’s near miraculous political success may be attributed in part to the underestimation of his opponents. His political experience was fathoms deep and, while he saw no need to keep Alice Roosevelt in bon mots, he was a practiced public speaker who knew a thing or two about budgets and, perhaps more importantly, character: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Unlike Mr. Reagan, Mr. Coolidge cut spending, and his persistence in doing so paid rich dividends to the real America, that large and sprawling portion of the country that radiates outward from the insular Washington D.C. Beltway. Applying Mr. Mellon’s “scientific taxation” prescriptions to a post-wartime economy, Coolidge and Harding before him slashed a $27 billion debt to $17.65 billion by cutting taxes and spending, which produced a growth geyser that flooded the treasury with surplus dollars. The abstemious Coolidge won office in a landslide, a clear repudiation of the progressive doctrines of his predecessors, most especially Wilson the World Savior.
During her Stamford address, Ms. Shlaes -- also author of “The Forgotten Man,” a well-received exploration of the Great Depression – was asked whether Mr. Coolidge’s economic prescriptions had in any sense “caused” the depression that followed Mr. Hoover’s reign. She answered in the word most often used by Mr. Coolidge during his two terms in office whenever it was put to him that his budget cuts would irreparably harm the economy – “No.”
Ms. Shlaes’ “Coolidge,” at 461 pages, is heavy enough to hurl at your local progressive but is not heavy reading. In a time in which a destructive progressive resurgence fueled by Barack Obama, the obverse of Coolidge, has opened the door to massive public debt, Ms. Shlaes’ book offers more than a retrospective view of a successful anti-progressive politician: “Coolidge” is a handbook for current politicians who would lead us from the brink of a new depression to the quiet and peaceful shores of normalcy.