By John David Dyche
He could be quiet, but not as much as his nickname Silent Cal suggests. He was also ambitious, hardworking, humble, intelligent, loving, philosophical, self-confident, and witty.
Most Americans have at best a superficial knowledge of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States. He served from 1923, when he took office upon the death of Warren Harding, to 1929, when he left office just before the Great Depression began.
Amity Shlaes new biography, Coolidge, does a decent job of adding some depth to the often inaccurate caricature of the man perhaps best remembered for supposedly saying, "The business of America is business." Shlaes is a standout free market thinker and writer, and her book The Forgotten Man was a powerful presentation in very human terms of how Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal actually prolonged the Great Depression.
As for Coolidge, however, a 1998 biography, Coolidge: An American Enigma by Robert Sobel, not only corrects the business misquote and puts it in context, but also paints a fuller, more compelling picture of this fascinating man. Sobel's narrative surpasses Shlaes's in putting Coolidge in his proper place in the amazing American 1920's.
Born in what remains today very rural Vermont, educated at Amherst, and having worked his way up from local politics to the progressive Republican governorship of Massachusetts, Coolidge burst on the American political scene with his telegraphed statement during the Boston police strike of 1919 that, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
After Harding captured the hotly contested 1920 GOP presidential nomination pledging a return to "normalcy" after World War I and Democrat Woodrow Wilson's activist administration, Coolidge's addition to the ticket was a combination of accident, afterthought, and shrewd availability. However, it was widely expected he would be replaced in 1924.
Harding died while Coolidge was visiting Vermont. In a public relations bonanza, Coolidge took the oath from his father, who was a farmer, a politician in his own right, and, fortunately, a notary public. Coolidge continued Harding's platform, but avoided fallout from his scandals.
Aided by his popular wife, Grace, he was easily nominated in 1924, but before the campaign began the Coolidge's suffered a life-changing blow when their son Calvin, Jr. died from an infection shortly after blistering his toe while playing tennis on the White House court. Democrats, locked in a hot, long, and divisive convention, had to stop proceedings to announce the death from the rostrum.
For Shlaes, the focal point of Coolidge's administration is his budget reductions and tax-cutting. He maintained a surplus, dramatically reduced tax rates, and presided over a period of steadily increasing prosperity. Shlaes repeatedly recurs to Coolidge's meetings with budget director Herbert Lord and to his successful implementation of "scientific taxation," Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's precursor to supply side economics.
Sobel puts excerpts from Coolidge's autobiography and many speeches to fine use. Although a man of few words, Coolidge actually mastered the new medium of radio, for which his voice was better suited than for the preceding era's florid public speaking style.
What emerges is a political philosophy of economy and limited government, in which administration was allowed time to catch up with legislation, but also one that firmly believed that traditional American values were essential underpinnings of prosperity. Idealism was also on display in his foreign policy, which included the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as an instrument of national policy.
Saying, "It is a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you," Coolidge resisted considerable pressure to seek reelection in 1928. After returning to private life he wrote magazine articles and newspaper columns, made money, and watched warily as the economic situation darkened.
His successor, Herbert Hoover, initiated federal recovery efforts that Roosevelt accelerated and expanded many times over. By 1933, however, Coolidge saw no basis for hope beyond religion. He dropped dead at age sixty-one.
Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels may be the politician on the current scene most reminiscent of Coolidge. They bear distinct physical, political, philosophical, and personality resemblances.
Daniels, now president of Purdue University, opted against seeking the presidency last year. But America could still use him, or another leader like Coolidge, and the sooner the better.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com.