Monday, May 1, 2017

Speaking up for Silent Cal

When we think of Calvin Coolidge at all, which isn't often, we usually want to smile. There's his legendary silence, which resulted in the nickname Silent Cal. One story finds him at a dinner party, where the woman next to him said someone bet her that she wouldn't get more than two words out of him all evening. Coolidge replied, "You lose." Then there are some of the photographs taken of him, especially those showing him in an Indian headress. And finally there is his name, which next to that of Millard Fillmore is the most likely among U.S. presidents to get a laugh. Hardly anyone remembers anything Coolidge actually did while he was in the White House.

Amity Shlaes takes Calvin Coolidge seriously in Coolidge, her fine 2013 biography. He became president in 1923 upon the death of Warren Harding, was elected to his own term in 1924 and probably could have been easily re-elected in 1928 had he chose to run. Harding had been elected on the theme of a "return to normalcy," but there was nothing normal about his scandal-ridden, playboy presidency. It was Coolidge who restored normalcy, balancing the federal budget while paying off the war debt, taking steps that encouraged economic growth, higher wages and remarkable technological change. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, Coolidge sought an international agreement that would eliminate future war. That didn't work, of course, anymore than his economic measures prevented the Great Depression not long after he left office, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

This quiet, simple man from Vermont was incredibly popular in his day. And despite his reputation for being a man of few words, it was he, not Franklin D. Roosevelt, who first used radio to speak directly to the American people. After his presidency, he conveyed his thoughts on national affairs in a popular newspaper column.

Coolidge did not think highly of his successor, Herbert Hoover. He seemed to sense that Hoover's spending policies would lead to economic disaster, yet this fear was not sufficient to persuade him to run for office again. He wanted to return to Vermont with his beloved wife, Grace. This he did, but he died within a few years of leaving office. And since then his reputation has diminished, while his usefulness as a punchline has increased. Amity Shlaes's book helps a bit to restore the proper order.

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