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The Great Refrainer

Article by Robert Asahina February 1, 2013 //   5 minute read
“Calvin Coolidge – the tight-fisted, reticent New Englander — hasn’t ranked high in the Presidential pantheon. Amity Shlaes’s new biography carries a different and highly relevant message: the need for fiscal discipline, the power of saying no, the capacity of a reserved and modest man to draw upon resources of personal conviction and unquestioned integrity to take forceful action. Read Coolidge, and better understand the forces bearing on the President and Congress almost a century later.”

— Paul A. Volcker

Calvin Coolidge is an improbable hero. A taciturn New Englander who chose to enter politics, the most garrulous of pursuits, “Silent Cal” has been mocked for decades. In her new biography, Coolidge, Amity Shlaes tells of a Washington society lady who teased him that she had wagered she could get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” Coolidge replied. “Popular memory relegates him to the role of placeholder who kept the chair in the Oval Office warm between Roosevelts,” Shlaes tells us:

In writing my recent book, The Forgotten Man, I came across Coolidge, and was astounded to discover how much he had achieved … here was a forgotten president.

In deeds as well as words, Coolidge was “the Great Refrainer.” Yet the results of his refraining proved dramatic, and stupendously beneficial to most Americans. When he took office, the nation was still recovering from the Great War, and the economic problems the country faced sound like ours today:

The public debt grew twenty-fold in a few short years, going from $1.25 billion to $26.6 billion, many times the annual budget of the federal government. Interest and principal payments threatened to bankrupt the nation; unions and progressives at the same time were demanding new permanent outlays — what we would call entitlements. Inflation raged…. The top tax rate was over 70 percent; business was frozen and the press wrote of a “capital strike” by investors. Federal policy was unpredictable, like a great pendulum, swinging from side to side so that markets cowered in the corner to wait for a more certain environment.

But under Coolidge, “the American economy grew four percent a year, in real terms,” Shlaes points out, and “joblessness averaged below five percent.” There was always a federal budget surplus. Wages and purchasing power rose, even as union membership dropped. The wealthy “paid a greater share of the taxes than they had before him,” even though the top tax rate dropped by half, to 25%. Long-term interest rates came down by almost half, and private pensions more than doubled.

“History has paid little attention to the achievements of Coolidge because he seemed to be unduly passive. Yet Amity Shlaes, as his biographer, exposes the heroic nature of the man and brings to life one of the most vibrant periods in American economic history.”

— Alan Greenspan

Despite — or perhaps because of — his achievements, Coolidge does not fit our preconceptions of what a President should be, and do (or not do). “It is almost as if he spoke a different language,” Shlaes writes. “Today Americans believe presidents must be active, in the charge-ahead mode of Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt. Coolidge refrained and advocated refraining.” He did not believe in appeasing interest groups. He believed it was more important to prevent a bad law than to sign a good one. He emphasized both tax cuts and budget cuts. He was reluctant to intervene in the economy. He upheld private property, free enterprise, small government, federalism, and the virtues of family and faith. He did indeed say that “the chief business of America is business” — but also that “the ideal of America is idealism.”

“Dorothy Parker and Sinclair Lewis taught America to mock Calvin Coolidge, but in this marvelous book that is in many respects as subtle and powerful as Coolidge himself, Amity Shlaes blows that injustice out of the water. Her masterly command of economics, policy, and personal portraiture illustrates the times, talents, character, and courage of the consummate New Englander and his gracious wife. When you read of the death of their son, you will be linked to them forever. If you have a free intelligence you will see past Coolidge’s natural modesty to his greatness. And if you have a heart you will come to love the Coolidges for their unadorned humanity.”

— Mark Helprin, author, Winter’s Tale

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes will be available on February 12. You may preorder your copy at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound.