Saturday, February 3, 2018
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes - Book Review
Amity Shlaes has written a nuanced and compassionate account of the life of our 30th President called, simply, Coolidge (HarperCollins, 2013, 595 pages, available new and used, Kindle edition $8.99), touting what are often seen as his liabilities as strengths which brought dignity and acclaim to Coolidge in a difficult time of major changes in America and the world, as we recovered from World War I and adjusted to a country fraught with social, economic, political re-adjustment. Coolidge, while far from perfect, emerges as a model of probity, humility, and service which, given serious attention in today’s overheated political, technological, and media environment, provide a model for behavior and restraint. Often seen today as a “do-nothing” minor holder of our top office, belittled by the nickname Silent Cal, he is shown as intelligent, thoughtful, reserved, and, during his administration, both admired and liked.
Born into an influential but far from wealthy, family of Vermont farmers, small business proprietors, and political functionaries, his family history showed a strain of community mindedness, as his father, grandfather, and uncles had served as school board members, and in the local and state legislatures. Political action was viewed as a responsibility, not an ambition. Calvin Coolidge (born July 4, 1872, the only president born on Juy 4th) was physically slight, reserved, and, as he grew through school and began college at Amherst, unpromising. His lack of what today would be called charisma seems to have been a part of his effectiveness, though, and related to his always upward life path. He became noted as a listener and a quiet doer. People who befriended him found themselves drawn to him, despite (or maybe because of) his quiet, gentle demeanor.
Coolidge, having read the law in a local law office rather than attending a law school, was drawn to politics, but, in his quiet and unprepossessing fashion, sought lower level offices on boards and committees, which helped him to learn local issues as well as grow in his skills of negotiation and finding compromises which would leave multiple parties happy. Shlaes consistently makes reference to large economic, political, and social changes occurring nationally as the turn of the century rolls around. She points to the Spanish American war, the emergence of industrialism, immigration, and technology as Coolidge warns his father that he will be a man of the 20th century, not the 19th which will require new skills and perspectives. With each physical and intellectual move Coolidge makes, Shlaes always places it in a larger context, laying groundwork for the president he will become. Coolidge’s posture towards the battles that were continuing to rage between progressives and conservatives became that legislators should not be ideologues, but choose the path that serves the greater good in each setting. He sought a balance between labor and capital that would help corporations thrive while working people received ever higher living wages, leading to the advancement of both.
On the other hand, by refusing to compromise during the 1919 Boston police strike, to find middle ground between the police strikers and their duty as police officers, Coolidge established a line that broke the already crumbling strike. Unlike his usual strategy of bringing factions together to find acceptable middle ground, his position of firing the police and making no compromises with behavior that led to the riots, Coolidge established himself as a man who could be counted on to make a hard decision in a time great difficulty. His choice was met with local and national acclaim. Where President Wilson had hesitated, more interested in his national tour pushing the doomed League of Nations, to speak out, Coolidge, as governor of Massachusetts, had taken an uncompromising stand toward the strike which garnered national attention and the first inklings among political watchers that he might be presidential timber.
Selected by the Republicans to become Warren G. Harding’s running mate in the 1920 election, he was able to keep enough independence not to get caught up in the scandals (Teapot Dome and others) associated with Harding, thus succeeding to the presidency when Harding died in the second year of his term without being associated with Harding’s problems, while able to continue to pursue (at least in name) the policies of his predecessor. For the next six years, Coolidge managed to cut spending, reduce taxes, create a balanced budget, and reduce the national debt. By the time he reached the decision not to run again (“I do not choose to run!”) he was widely admired and even liked as a conservative and public spirited man working for the benefit of all. He maintained his posture that the government had no business in local issues in the face of national disasters growing out of disastrous flooding in the South and New England, always the consistent and even-handed administrator and leader.
Amity Ruth Shlaes is an American author and newspaper and magazine columnist. Shlaes writes about politics and economics from a US libertarian perspective. Shlaes has authored a number of books, including three New York Times Bestsellers (Wikipedia profile)
As Coolidge ages too quickly in retirement, the value of his care with words, his holding back to allow the processes to work themselves through, emerges in public consciousness. In his columns, as in his speeches and interviews as President, Coolidge makes each precious word count for more by husbanding the total. The contrast between his approach to his role and celebrity presidents goes almost without saying. Playing his cardsc honestly, close to the vest, even with changes in communications and technology, clearly gives the president’s words more impact and influence. Amity Shlaes has presented a powerful picture of a man who in public and private life lived within the restraints of humility and service while accomplishing much. Coolidge offers a portrait more students of our history should seek to learn from and emulate. I bought the book and read it on my Kindle.