The Great Refrainer

0c6ccoolidgebook The Great Refrainer

by Amity Shlaes, HarperCollins, 565 pages, $35.If there was ever a time when the president could simply
preside, it has long passed. As early as the Eisenhower era,
political scientist Clinton Rossiter observed that the public had
come to see the federal chief executive as “a combination of
scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father
of the multitudes.” Under the pressure of public demands, the
office had accrued a host of responsibilities over and above its
constitutional ones: “World Leader,” “Protector of the Peace,”
“Chief Legislator,” “Manager of Prosperity,” “Voice of the People,”
and more.To that daunting portfolio add “Feeler-in-Chief,” a term coined
in all earnestness by The New York Times’s
Maureen Dowd in 2010 while lashing out at Barack Obama for being
insufficiently emotive about the BP oil spill. Obama, she wrote,
had “resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in
moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they
know he gets it.”Poor MoDo would have kicked the cat in sheer frustration if
confronted by the implacable, inscrutable Calvin Coolidge, whose
reaction to the job’s more unreasonable demands was a Bartleby-like
“I prefer not to.”Shortly after taking office in 1923, Coolidge informed the press
that he did not intend “to surrender to every emotional movement”
toward executive cures for whatever ails the body politic. In the
midst of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which killed hundreds
and left some 600,000 Americans homeless, Coolidge resisted calls
for federal relief, even refusing a request by NBC that he
broadcast a nationwide radio appeal for aid.In her new biography, Coolidge, Amity Shlaes suggests
that in our current era of fiscal and emotional incontinence, we
have much to learn from this parsimonious president.”Debt takes its toll,” Coolidge begins. Shlaes
underscores that point with an absorbing anecdote about one of
Cal’s forebears, Oliver Coolidge, who in 1849, for want of 30 bucks
to pay off a creditor, suffered through a stint in debtor’s prison.
“Lame in one leg from birth,” Oliver, the brother of the
president’s great-grandfather, had never been able to farm the
rocky land of southeastern Vermont as well as the other Coolidges.
And so, at age 61, he found himself behind bars, cursing his
brother, sending out “despairing letters to one family member after
another.”In Shlaes’ hands,
Oliver’s captivity and subsequent redemption—after his release he
headed west, where he and his family began new lives—serves as a
metaphor for the horrors of debt and the virtue of Yankee
perseverance. “The very area that plagued Oliver,” debt, saw “the
greatest persevering of Calvin Coolidge,” Shlaes writes. “Under
Coolidge, the federal debt fell”; under Coolidge, after
“sixty-seven months in office, the federal government was smaller”
than when he’d found it.Here was “a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president,” Shlaes
argues. And though history remembers “Silent Cal” mostly for his
reticence and frequent napping, Shlaes reminds us that “inaction
betrays strength.” In politics, it’s often easier to “do
something,” however unwise, than it is to hold firm: “Coolidge is
our great refrainer.”Alas, after Coolidge’s elegant introduction, the
sledding gets much tougher. Long stretches of this 456-page tome
read like an info-dump from Shlaes’s clearly formidable research
files. Like the hardscrabble farmers of Plymouth Notch, you need to
set your jaw grimly and persevere through a long winter of
sentences that should have been left on the cutting room floor,
like: “Coolidge met with [Budget Director Herbert] Lord six times
and reduced a tariff on paintbrush handles by half, his second cut
that year, the other a reduction in duty on live bob quail.” Shlaes
should have followed the example of her famously taciturn subject,
who in his 1915 opening address as president of the Massachusetts
Senate delivered a crisp little homily of 44 words, ending in
“above all things, be brief.”Still, the level of detail she provides inspires reflection on
the vast gulf between today’s GOP and the grand party of old.
Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge cut taxes
and shrank spending. They were pro-peace and
anti-wiretapping. They embraced “normalcy” instead of stoking fear.
And—go figure—they were also popular. Today’s Republicans could
profit from studying their example.Tax cuts were central to Coolidge’s legislative program, and he
believed, correctly, that under the prevailing conditions (the top
rate had crept above 70 percent during WWI) they’d lead to
increased revenue. But unlike modern supply-siders, Coolidge
attacked the beast head-on, instead of hoping to “starve” it
indirectly. “I am for economy,” he said in 1924, “after that, I am
for more economy.” He vetoed farm subsidies and new veterans
benefits, and Shlaes reports that he spent a great deal of time
“plotting to fend off military spending demands.”The tax cuts that Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon
orchestrated took millions of people off the tax rolls. Unlike Mitt
Romney, Coolidge and Mellon didn’t worry that they’d created a new
horde of “takers.” By 1927, as it became clear that top earners
were providing more revenue at lower rates, Mellon boasted that
their policy had transformed the income tax into “a class rather
than a national tax.”Coolidge “deemed international law the best approach to prevent
war,” backing the somewhat quixotic Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw
it. Coolidge being Coolidge, he took a green-eyeshades view of the
matter: “It pays to be at peace.” But peace also allowed greater
protection of civil liberties. Coolidge “removed William Burns, the
head of the Bureau of Investigation, and curtailed wiretapping, one
of Burns’s favored tools.” (Alas, he replaced Burns with young J.
Edgar Hoover.) Coolidge also finished the job of freeing the World
War I protestors jailed by Wilson. Harding had pardoned 25,
including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. Coolidge ordered the
release of Wilson’s remaining political prisoners.An admirable record, particularly considering the shape the
country was in after Professor Wilson’s reign. Weighed down by debt
and wartime controls, plagued by unemployment, the country seemed
“lost, if not cursed,” Shlaes writes. “Yet within a few years the
panic passed and the trouble eased,” she says. “The reversal was in
good measure due to the perseverance of one man”: Coolidge.

Link to original: 

The Great Refrainer

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply


Recent Posts


%d bloggers like this: