Campaign Biography: the Prequel

The single most interesting thing about Amity Shlaes’ new book, Coolidge, is its cover .  There the man who succeeded to the presidency on Warren Harding’s death, in 1923, and served until 1929, stares into the camera lens, which is to say directly into the eyes of the present-day reader. He is 53 years old. He wears a top hat and morning coat.

To a degree that is startling to anyone accustomed to the usual photographs of Coolidge’s deadpan visage, (as if “looking down his nose to locate that evil smell which seemed forever to affront him,” in one contemporary account), he resembles another, more familiar American president, George. W. Bush.  The bright eyes, confident gaze, strong chin resemble those of Bush, everything but the tight lips. Even in these circumstances, Silent Cal can’t quite manage a smile.

What are we to make of the sly equivalence between the thirtieth president and the forty-third? It is not accident.  Shlaes, a columnist for Bloomberg News, is also director of the 4% Growth Project of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

In the first instance, the resemblance is simply a device to reanimate a man who died eighty years ago. Always full of life, Bush is a convenient touchstone for a man remembered mainly as a stiff, illuminated by famous jokes: “Weaned on a pickle,” according to Alice Roosevelt Longworth. On the news that he had died, Dorothy Parker cracked, “How could they tell?”   For nearly six years, Coolidge presided over the greatest prosperity the country had ever known – automobiles, airplanes, refrigerators, radios and the electric power grid were fundamental to the boom – but he was known mainly for staying out of the way.  “In foreign policy, his Administration made little effort to persuade the American people they were not happily insulated from the outside world… and [his] record in domestic affairs was even less exciting. He was nothing if not cautious.” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Another journalist who knew him well, William Allen White, put a lid on this interpretation of Coolidge with his sympathetic 1938 biography, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge .

The restoration of Coolidge’s reputation for probity began with Ronald Reagan, who hung his portrait in the Cabinet Room.  Tax cuts in the 1920s engineered by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon were hailed as forerunners of  the “supply-side” policies of the early 1980s. Since then there has issued a steady stream of re-appreciations, mostly (though not exclusively) from the right, culminating in US Rep. Michele Bachmann’s suggestion that his image should be added to Mount Rushmore. (Coolidge signed the bill authorizing the monument’s funding in 1927 and spent that summer in the Black Hills.)   See Jacob Heilbrunn’s adroit review of Shlaes’ book in the New York Times for the history of Coolidge-olatry.

Shlaes’ retelling makes goes much further: Coolidge was “a rare kind of hero,” she writes, “a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts, whose leadership somehow enabled the then-unparalleled prosperity of the Roaring Twenties.  But the years before the presidency are the most interesting part of her tale.  His youth in Plymouth Notch, Vermont; his great good fortune as a young lawyer in Northampton, Mass., in marrying Grace Goodhue, a fellow Vermonter who had come to teach at the city’s Clarke School for the Deaf; his slow rise through the Massachusetts Senate, amid all the currents of the progressive politics of the day. (Called in as a mediator on the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass., he developed a considerable antipathy for the  “Wobblies” of the International Workers of the World.) There are the abiding friendships with his fellow Amherst College alumni Boston Department store owner Frank Stearns and J.P. Morgan partner Dwight Morrow; the all-important decision as Governor of Massachusetts in 1919 to end the Boston Police  strike by firing the strikers.

By the time Coolidge gets to Washington in August 1923, after Harding dies of a hreat attack, and he is sworn in by his father by the light of a kerosene lamp,  most of the really interesting biographical work is done.  It is not much of a presidency.  Five years later Coolidge hands out to reporters his famous declaration: “I do not choose to run” for a second term. Between times, he uses the knowledge he gained in the Massachusetts legislature to run the tightest possible governmental ship. He spends his days with his budget director, Herbert Lord, of Rockland, Maine, “hacking back the great corpus of government of the United States,” as Shlaes puts it. (With US participation in World War I, spending has risen to around five percent of GNP). “Over the pair hung the awareness of the federal [war] debt; the payments on the debt were manageable now, but scheduled to explode in coming years.” He vetoes farm subsidies and withholds federal flood relief, celebrates the transatlantic flight of flier Charles Lindbergh, campaigns for the adoption of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty meant to outlaw wars among nations. Even before it all begins, in 1924, he suffers the death of sixteen-year-old Calvin Jr. from sepsis incurred from a blister playing tennis on the White House lawn. Coolidge has many Yankee virtues, and Shlaes records them all, but he returns to Northampton in 1929 and is dead from a heart attack before Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated in 1933. When Shlaes is finished with her story, we see Coolidge’s presidency pretty much as did his contemporary H. L. Mencken.  “We suffer most when the White House bursts with ideas. With a World Saver [Woodrow Wilson] preceding him (I count out Harding as a mere hallucination) and a Wonder Boy [Herbert Hoover] following him he begins to seem, in retrospect, an extremely comfortable and even praiseworthy citizen.”

How strange, therefore, to see the minimalist president in the context of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.  Bush was more of the World Saver type. At a conference organized by the 4% Growth Project last year, executive director James Glassman, famous for his prediction of a 36,000 Dow Jones Industrial Average, asserted that “Reducing the debt is critical, but growth comes first.”  (There is always someone who doesn’t get the word.) The Puritan is back in Babylon.  Few experts think that the US economy today can grow at 4 percent for a sustained period of time, as it did for a few years in the 1920s, but Bush himself apparently is one. Otherwise there are many differences between Bush and Coolidge, and the biggest one is this: Coolidge went home to resume what remained of a quiet life, while Bush remains immersed in politics, at least behind the scenes, thorough his library.

The aspect that connects Calvin Coolidge most directly to the present day has more to do with the Tea Party than it does with Bush. Shlaes herself is politically attuned. Her biography is very much a forward-looking document, designed to present tax-cutting, spending reduction and budget-balancing as the most pressing issues of the present day; economic growth, apparently, comes next. Coolidge is designed to rally the Republican base around the candidacy of US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), or someone like him.   Issues like these are made years in advance, or so politicians these days hope. Welcome to campaign biography, the prequel.

Coolidge, already a big best-seller, is the latest project to reimagine the Republican past in hopes of enlivening its future. We already have George Nash’s scholarly examination of the career of Herbert Hoover. In The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Shlaes found room to write up Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 1940.  Bond market scribe James Grant is apparently working on a book about the lost significance of President Harding. Conservatives of a certain generation just don’t seem to want to give up on the 1920s; World War II is a watershed they are reluctant to confront (though journalist Ira Stoll  has leap-frogged over Dwight Eisenhower to write John Kennedy, Conservative.) It goes (practically) without saying that something important is at the base of this collective effort.  The standard stories about the Great Depression and the response of the New Deal are overdue for reinterpretation.

But the crucible of partisan politics is more nearly the last step than the first in this process. What’s wanted is an economic history of  US growth since the Civil War.

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