Coolidge, Amity Shlaes.

Harper, 2013

Study the careers of the Republican presidents of the 20th century and you’ll find that, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, nearly all were champions of strong centralised government. Richard Nixon, in his domestic policy, continued the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson that dramatically expanded the welfare state. Dwight Eisenhower accepted — and slightly enlarged — FDR’s New Deal. Herbert Hoover, although less statist than Franklin Roosevelt, was nonetheless a proponent of vigorous national government that included high import tariff barriers. Theodore Roosevelt, while culturally conservative, nonetheless thought a strong, centralised federal government was necessary to check the excesses of corporations.

Supporters of limited government have had two Republican presidents to admire: Warren Harding (1921–23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923–29). Although Harding has his fans, his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, and his interior secretary, Albert B. Fall, both resigned after journalists discovered that oil companies paid bribes to obtain the rights to government reserves in California and the Teapot Dome region of Wyoming. Fall was subsequently convicted of bribery and served nine months in jail, becoming the first Cabinet member convicted of a felony.

Because the Harding administration was stained by corruption, today’s conservatives have shown a strong interest in the ideas of Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), who was as devoted as Harding to reducing the size and power of the state but whose six years in office were free of scandal.

Amity Shlaes, a syndicated columnist and a program officer at the George W. Bush Institute, does a good job in showing today’s readers why Coolidge’s life and ideas matter. She successfully persuades her readers that Coolidge was a very good president thanks largely to his outstanding treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon.

Shlaes, whose previous book, The Forgotten Man, was a history of America in the 1930s, is very good at describing economic ideas but weaker at portraying character. She is not helped by Coolidge’s flinty reticence. His nickname was “Silent Cal”, and a joke about Coolidge, perhaps apocryphal, was that a woman confronted Coolidge at a party and said that she bet she could get him to speak more than three words, only to be told: “You lose”.

Coolidge’s reserve extended to his papers. “I have never been hurt by what I have not said”, Coolidge once remarked, and he made sure that his presidential papers, now at the Library of Congress, were thoroughly sanitised. Until 1978, presidential papers were the personal property of the president, and it’s clear that Coolidge and his wife, Grace, destroyed much of Coolidge’s presidential archive.

But because of Coolidge’s emotional restraint, there’s much about his life we don’t know. For example, Coolidge died of a heart attack at the age of 61. But Shlaes, other than a few references to Coolidge’s smoking, offers no reasons why he died so young.

Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth, Vermont, in 1872. After he graduated from Amherst College, Coolidge spent a few years practicing corporate law and two years as mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1910 he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and then began his slow ascent in Massachusetts politics, becoming lieutenant governor in 1916 and governor in 1918.

Events in September 1919 made Coolidge a national figure. The Boston police force decided to unionise and went on strike for higher wages and a reduction in hours. Coolidge, working with Boston police commissioner Edwin Curtis, fired all the striking police and brought in state militia and private guards to maintain order until new police could be hired. “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time”, Coolidge wrote to labor leader Samuel Gompers.

Warren G. Harding, the Republican presidential candidate in 1920, found Coolidge’s toughness attractive, and Coolidge became vicepresident after Harding’s victory in the 1920 elections. But once elected vice-president, Coolidge had little to do. He lived in the Willard Hotel, which prohibited guests — including vice-presidents — from owning animals. Coolidge and his wife’s chief leisure activity was spending hours at a time feeding the hotel mice.

In August 1923 Harding died, probably from a heart attack, causing Coolidge to become president. The Nation, a left-wing weekly magazine, declared that the presidency “has fallen into the hands of a man so cold, so narrow, so reactionary, so uninspiring, and so unenlightened” and “who has done less to earn it, than Calvin Coolidge.”

Coolidge was to prove The Nation wrong. He asked every government department to cut its budget, and then cut some more. As a result, the federal budget went into surplus of $100 million in 1925 and $300 million in 1926. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon pursued what he called “scientific taxation”, and continued to successfully push for lower tax rates, thinking that people would spend or save more if they paid less in taxes.

Prosperity ensured an easy victory for Coolidge in 1924 over Democratic candidate John W. Davis. Coolidge then spent his only full term in office cutting the budget even more. As a result, the federal budget continued to be in surplus, and the national debt was cut from $28 billion to $19 billion. Mellon’s tax policies, Shlaes notes, “could relieve some spending, bring down the debt, and foster prosperity.”

As a president, the stern and silent Coolidge is a hard man to like. “His chief feat”, H.L. Mencken caustically observed in an obituary, “was to sleep more than any other president.” But in an age where presidents of both parties feel compelled to create grand schemes to remake the world, a president whose only goal was to quietly shrink the state gains new lustre. While Amity Shlaes is not entirely persuasive, she presents a powerful case that a quiet, competent president is more effective than a lofty failure.