by Amity Shlaes
HarperCollins, 576 pages, $35
Walter Lippmann might have captured the conservative greatness of Coolidge even as his words dripped with irony. “Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity,” wrote Lippmann in 1926, “is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly . . . a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”
Coolidge’s appeal in our time, and clearly there is a Coolidge revival underway, has much to do with this anti-activism, his “conserving” approach to government and the presidency. He offered a kind of leadership, even a species of genius, that secured the blessings of liberty, that creatively (rather than haphazardly) pulled back the reach of the state, that drew the national government back after decades of growth and intrusion in order to feed the source of America’s ordered liberty: the habits of self-rule.
In her biography, Coolidge , Amity Shlaes presents a man buffeted by life, for whom tragedy was a palpable experience”a man of deep principles without being an ideologue, a deep thinker and excellent writer without being an intellectual. It is in the complexity of this portrait that the reader can understand the combination of prudence and principle at work in Coolidge’s “grim, determined, alert inactivity.”
Some would make Coolidge a hero for his deep devotion to the “founding principles” of the nation as articulated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and interpreted by Abraham Lincoln. Others praise Coolidge for his devotion to small government. Advocates of both perspectives see in Coolidge the anti-Obama, the antidote to contemporary progressivism. Shlaes, who never mentions Obama, gives the careful reader something more rewarding: a leader and his times, a president and the moral culture of which he was a part.
We have a great deal to learn from Coolidge in our time, but not as an abstraction: a “leader” animated by right beliefs. Reading Coolidge might encourage some readers to contrast that taciturn and self-effacing president with our own prolix and self-aggrandizing president, but because the book presents a man whose unique character bore the imprint of his time and surroundings, it offers an opportunity for deeper reflection on the nature of the public that chooses such leaders.
Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man , a much-praised history of the beginning of the New Deal, presents a rooted man, whose political and moral principles are densely tangled with his region, his family, his education, his religion, and his experiences of tragedy and overcoming.
While the view we get of Coolidge’s deep religiosity is murky (he was clearly uninterested in or uncomfortable with discussing his religious beliefs or doctrines with any specificity”even choosing to mark “none” with regard to his denominational preference while at Amherst College), the book describes the rich moral and imaginative resources that shaped his distinctive brand of individualism. His childhood reading was extensive, including not only the Bible, but also works on American history (heavy on New England’s history and the War for Independence), Shakespeare and other classic English texts, and Greek, Roman, and Christian works. As a young man, he devoted attention to Cicero’s orations, which influenced his own”at Amherst he would acquire a classical education.
Just as stories about Cincinnatus or George Washington shaped the imagination of young Calvin, so did his experiences of town meetings in Vermont, of close and difficult ties to the rocky farmland, and of family deeply committed to self-reliance and self-control. The shy boy from rural New England found in these intellectual and social sources the resources for a leader who knows his own mind and is not prone to blow with the breezes of transient public opinion.
Coolidge simply doesn’t fit any classification of a modern (twenty-first century) politician, and it is difficult to pin him as a familiar type. In Shlaes’ view, Coolidge’s love for America found expression in many forms. Yes, he invoked the principles found in the Declaration and the Constitution”he was deeply learned about both. And he loved the independence America fostered in its citizens, what he might have called individualism, but which included longstanding habits and traditions of taking care of one another.
Yet Coolidge also thought America was lovely because of its vitality: its creative energy in solving problems, in commercial and industrial productivity, in the great many ways that a free and ordered society cultivates energy and growth. One detects in him, in other words, a deep reverence for what America is rather than what he thought it ought to be.
The America that Coolidge loved was dynamic, changing”it was “progressing,” though in a way the progressives did not see. This America was not the federal government, which he believed threatened the real America. He was very active without being an activist. He had to find ways”very, very difficult indeed”of shrinking the government after the expansions of World War I and progressive reforms.
He took on such a task because he believed in the people and the social institutions that defined America. He was willing to fight vested interests”not those of private “interests” but mainly those of a Congress addicted to growing the government.
Coolidge had to calibrate his administration to fit the principles as suited to the circumstances. This was true in the development of his tax policies with Andrew Mellon (Shlaes does an excellent job of showing the development of his thinking over time on this subject), in his responses to natural disasters, and on the morally complicated questions of immigration and race questions more generally.
He was very proud of his reforms to the tax code, and in this he thought of himself as following the principles of Abraham Lincoln”for Lincoln understood that one of the highest purposes of the president was to administer the government. Designing a budget and tax policies that were suited to the needs of the nation, that reflected his vision of a robust but limited government, of taxation that is fair and encourages economic progress”these were moral goals as surely as any presented by activist presidents who wished to expand the government to solve some social ill.
Coolidge was, to use the word expansively, a “progressive” on race issues. He pushed as far as he felt justified in defending racial equality by federal power, but the 1924 immigration bill exposed the degree to which his own sense of limits on presidential power along with the complicated power relationships of Washington-forced compromises.
As his budget was making its way through Congress, he confronted the controversial bill that included the exclusion of Japanese citizens from further immigration. Not only did the Japanese exclusion provision put the president in an awkward position in terms of relations with the Japanese government (something that was important to Coolidge), but he considered it racist and unnecessary.
He signed the bill anyway, appending his own criticism to the exclusion provision. This was perhaps a sign of cowardice or prudence, but clearly also a recognition of the limits to his power: proper limits even when he could not prevent an immoral law.
The limits of governmental power were part of Coolidge’s national pride. He expressed his devotion for America and what it produces with remarkable brevity in a speech celebrating Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. The president stressed that Lindbergh’s was an American accomplishment. Aviation had flourished in America, and the man who piloted the plane was a heroic example of what America produced: a man of high morals, deep character, and humility; a man who was driven more by spirit than by commercialism or materialism. “The absence of self-acclaim, the refusal to become commercialized, which has marked the conduct of this sincere and genuine exemplar of fine and noble virtues, has endeared him to everyone. He has returned unspoiled.”
He concluded with conspicuous notice that Lindbergh did not accomplish this alone. The great feat was partly the result of American capitalism. “We are proud that in every particular this silent partner represented American genius and industry. I am told that more than one hundred separate companies furnished materials, parts, or service in its construction.”
Coolidge loved this “silent partner” of “American genius and industry” because it was truly noble, producing a better life for Americans and empowering them to live more independently and to make their own mark on the world by their willpower, skill, and perseverance. It was in fidelity to this America that Coolidge crafted the policies and the public temperament of his presidency. His task was hardly easy, for it required a strong set of principles, a moral commitment to both the goals and limits of government, a thick skin, and deft political skills.
While another recent book on Coolidge concludes with a section entitled “Lessons for Obama from Silent Cal,” Coolidge offers no lessons for Obama, because the deepest lesson we can learn from Coolidge is the importance of character”and character isn’t something a person can simply choose after he gets power. Coolidge is unimaginable without his roots”his family, his church, the books he read, the trials and difficulties he endured.
But while Coolidge bears the imprint of his upbringing, it was what he did with his experiences that shaped his character long before he occupied the White House. The question with which Shlaes’ biography leaves me is whether a man of Coolidge’s character could be president today.
Ted V. McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.