The American Presidents Series
About the book
When Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in November 1980, he pledged to restore certain old-fashioned values to public life: patriotism and piety, hard work and thrift. To underscore the point, one of the first changes he made on entering the White House in January was to take down the portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman in the Cabinet Room and put up those of Dwight Eisenhower and Calvin Coolidge.
Reagan's choice of the genial, avuncular Eisenhower most Americans could understand, if not necessarily endorse. In contrast, the exaltation of Coolidge appeared, at best, idiosyncratic. President from 1923, when he acceded to the office upon the sudden death of Warren Harding, until 1929, when he retired after forswearing a second full term, Coolidge was enormously popular throughout his tenure -- an icon of his era every bit as much as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, or Charlie Chaplin. Yet by 1981 the long-departed Yankee Republican figured only marginally in the history books and even less so in the nation's collective memory. Coolidge's popular reputation, such as it was, had hardened into a cartoon -- one that endures today.
Coolidge has become the grim-faced "Silent Cal" -- Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice made famous the judgment that he looked "as if he had been weaned on a pickle" -- and a consummately passive president. "His ideal day," mocked his contemporary H. L. Mencken, "is one on which nothing whatever happens." He is stfll remembered as he was seen by the "smart set" of the 1920s -- intellectuals and writers like Mencken, Walter Lippmann, and William Allen White -- who berated him as a mediocrity and a stooge of the business class. In popular culture, Coolidge survived not in weighty biographies but tucked away in novels such as Nathanael West's 1934 gem, A Cool Million, which parodies Coolidge as the former president Shagpoke Whipple, whose Horatio Alger-style platitudes, in the desperation of the Depression, curdle into fascism. With his nineteenth-century regard for individual integrity, esteem for business, and taste for small government, Coolidge has stood distant and indistinct across the chasm introduced into history by the New Deal and World War II.
Yet to Ronald Reagan, who was a teenager during Coolidge's presidency, Silent Cal remained a hero, "one of our most underrated presidents." Throughout his two terms in office, Reagan perused Coolidge speeches and biographies; after his 1985 cancer surgery, Reagan was seen in his recovery room reading a book about Silent Cal. His staff brought to the White House the conservative writer Thomas Silver, whose 1982 book Coolidge and the Historians argued that liberal scholars had given Coolidge a bum rap. Reagan agreed. "I happen to be an admirer of Silent Cal and believe he has been badly treated by history,' Reagan told a correspondent. "I've done considerable reading and researching of his presidency. He served his country well and accomplished much." More important, Reagan drew on Coolidge's homilies for his own statements, and in 1981, when he fired striking air traffic controllers, he took inspiration from Coolidge's tough line in 1919 against striking Boston policemen.
Other Reaganites similarly found a model in the neglected president. Wall Street Journal editorialist Jude Wanniski, the apostle of supply-side economics, viewed Coolidge as an unsung prophet. The columnist Robert Novak ranked Coolidge as his second favorite American leader -- after Reagan, of course -- and the Republican consultant Roger Stone hosted annual celebrations of the former president on July 4, which happened to be Silent Cal's birthday. In September 2006, the conservative Heritage Foundation hosted an evening entitled "Coolidge: A Life for Our Time," featuring a premiere screening of "the first film ever made of the personal and political life of Calvin Coolidge." Nonetheless, amid all the scholarly attention devoted of late to the founders of post-World War II conservatism, Coolidge and the avatars of the conservative prewar years have remained largely overlooked.
Foremost among Coolidge's achievements, for Reagan and his followers, were the economic policies he pursued, which helped maintain a robust prosperity for his five and a half years in office -- but also contributed to the crash and Great Depression that followed. Reagan remembered only the upside. "He cut the taxes four times," Reagan said in 1981 of Silent Cal."We had probably the greatest growth and prosperity that we've ever known. And I have taken heed of that, because if he did nothing, maybe that's the answer [for] the federal government." Coolidge also succeeded in doing something that Reagan could not: he paid down the federal debt substantially -- the last president to do so until Bill Clinton.
To Reagan and his supporters, Coolidge represented an ideal. They shared with him not just a belief in small government but also its flip side: a faith in a mythic America in which hardworking, God-fearing neighbors buffered one another from hardship. Both men felt confident that private virtue could check the threat of moral decay brought on by modern changes. Where Reagan pined for the small towns of the 1920s, Coolidge waxed nostalgic for the nineteenth-century Vermont of his youth, a world of McGuffey's Readers and toil on the farm, Congregationalist churches and town meetings. Less a censorious Puritan than a pious man of sentimental faith, Coolidge shunned the era's new secularism as well as its resurgent fundamentalism -- he saw religion as a source of virtue, not of division, oppression, or intellectual limitations
Business, likewise, was for him benign, not predatory. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Progressive Era reforms had countered some of the worst depredations of the unfettered capitalism of the Gilded Age. By the 1920s, a view was emerging that capitalists' new sense of social responsibility would preclude the need for aggressive federal intervention in the marketplace. Coolidge shared this view. A believer in the regnant economic orthodoxy of Say's Law -- the notion, propounded by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, that supply creates its own demand -- Coolidge held that industrial productivity, by generating prosperity, would serve the general good. Indeed, he equated the public interest not with some consensus brokered to satisfy competing social factions but with something close to the needs of industry itself. He wanted, as he once said, "to encourage business, not merely for its own sake but because that is the surest method of administering to the common good."
Coolidge famously summarized this philosophy in his January 1925 declaration to the American Society of Newspaper Editors: "The chief business of America is business." Although sometimes caricatured as a sign of Coolidge's obeisance to corporations, the statement actually contained a more subtle though still pro-business message. No apologist for raw laissez-faire, Coolidge believed that public-spiritedness was needed to counter the corrupting temptations of the profit motive. He was reminding the editors that they had to remain high-minded if the commercially driven newspaper business was to benefit the public. "The chief ideal of the American people," he explained, "is idealism." And Coolidge's economic outlook was indeed idealistic.
* * *
Besides sharing an idealized image of America, Ronald Reagan resembled Calvin Coolidge in another important sense. For all his paeans to an idyllic past, Reagan was decidedly forward-looking in several respects: his delight in a consumer society, his use of communications media to advance his goals, and his conception of presidential leadership. The same was true of Coolidge.
Although the fires of political progressivism cooled in the 1920s, social change and modernization continued. The sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd called the decade "one of the eras of greatest rapidity in change in the history of human institutions." America was
plunging headlong into modernity, with its whirligig of jazz and speakeasies, Model Ts and skyscrapers, movies and radios, liberated women and the "New Negro." The consumer economy was enshrining a habit of self-definition based on pleasure, leisure, and personal choice, displacing an older ethic of ascetic living and pride in one's craft. Sitting aloof from it all in Washington, with his woolen suits, Victorian mores, and disapproving grimace, the dour Coolidge seemed to many a world apart. "We were smack in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, with hip flasks, joy rides, and bathtub gin parties setting the social standards," wrote Edmund Starling, Coolidge's Secret Service agent and daily walking companion. "The president was the antithesis of all this and he despised it."
But the president was no reactionary. He did not seek to stand athwart history yelling stop. If he helped mute public enthusiasm for activist government, he didn't significantly roll back the gains of the Progressive Era any more than Eisenhower undid the New Deal or Reagan repealed the Great Society. And if he frowned upon the culture of the 1920s, he smiled contentedly at the rising living standards that made it all possible. Indeed, like his friends Henry Ford, the automaker who clung to ideals of an agrarian past while championing cutting-edge business practices, and Bruce Barton, the adman who reconciled the Christian ideal of salvation with the consumer culture's imperative to spend and enjoy, Calvin Coolidge bridged the zeitgeists of two eras. His modem aspects, though under- appreciated, are as significant as his traditional ones.