Presidents’ Day: Amity Schlaes’ biography of Coolidge

Very little attention is being paid to the holiday today, except as a traffic annoyance. When I was a child, we still celebrated Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and Washington’s birthday (February 22). Since the holidays were combined and made into a long weekend, like most other American holidays, interest has declined in the subject. It has been for many years the weekend of the Midwinter yacht races in southern California, so I enjoyed it as much as anyone.

Amity Schlaes’ new biography of Coolidge, which has been delayed for nearly a year from the original date promised, is now out and I have begun reading it. It has also attracted a hostile review in the New York Times by Jacob Heilbrunn author of such profound works as God Bless Bernie Sanders, an encomium on the Socialist Senator from the “people’s republic of Vermont”, as it is known in New Hampshire, and another tiresome attack on Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife.

Mr Heilbrunn does not seem to be an economist and I am not certain of his qualifications to criticize President Coolidge, other than the obvious invitation by the New York Times.

James Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, said it was important to revive the “moral stigma” of debt, and added, “I want to go back to Coolidge and even McKinley.” The Claremont fellow Charles Kesler, author of “I Am the Change,” a recent book denouncing President Obama and liberalism, agreed: “We’re in for a Coolidge revival.”

Indeed we are. Coolidge was a figure of sport in his own era. H. L. Mencken mocked his daily naps — “Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored” — and Dorothy Parker reportedly asked, “How could they tell?” when his death was announced. But such quips have only heightened the determination of a growing contingent of Coolidge buffs to resurrect him. They abhor the progressive tradition among Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) and Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover) as hostile to big business and prosperity. Instead, their aim is to spread the austere doctrine of what might be called Republican Calvinism.

Mr Heilbrunn seems to consider debt a good thing, if one can judge from his rhetoric.

No one, however, is offering as silky a defense of Coolidge as Amity Shlaes. ­Shlaes, whose new biography is blurbed by Representative Paul Ryan as a “must-read,” has always had a deft finger on the conservative pulse. Her previous book — the best seller “The Forgotten Man,” which assailed both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt for perpetuating the Great Depression through big-­government activism — was described in 2009 by Politico as an essential text for House Republicans, who were, it said, “tearing through . . . ‘The Forgotten Man’ like soccer moms before book club night.”

Aside from the snide tone, he seems to be about right here. It is high time Republican Congressmen began to wonder why the 1920s were so prosperous and the 1930s so dismal. I would submit that the 20s resemble the 1990s and the 30s resemble the present day. What no one of Mr Heilbrunn’s persuasion seems to comprehend is that there was a severe crash and recession in 1920-21 after World War I ended and Wilson’s regime of Progressive legislation left a hangover. How was this steep recession ended so quickly ?

I expect Schlaes’ book to be informative. I do wonder if the delay in publication was caused by some rewriting in order to add more information about Barack Obama’s recreation of the Roosevelt Depression.

Like the Bourbons, Mr Heilbrunn has learned nothing and forgotten nothing about the economic history of this past century.

The bogus nostrums that Coolidge touted have directly led either to enormous deficits during the Reagan era or to outright catastrophe during the Bush era. Shlaes never stops to ponder the abundant literature chafing at and exposing the conformity and avarice of the Roaring Twenties, but the prosperity offered by Calvinism has always proved as elusive as the promise of the green light that Jay Gatsby watches at the end of Daisy’s dock. Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.

It never occurs to Mr Heilbrunn. and other Obama supporters, that the coming financial events will make Reagan and Bush’s alleged sins seem like a golden era we will never be able to recover.

9 thoughts on “Presidents’ Day: Amity Schlaes’ biography of Coolidge”

  1. Amity Shlaes said on Amazon that she “delayed Coolidge, largely to expand the economic section, which addresses debt and leadership.”

  2. “Amity Shlaes said on Amazon that she “delayed Coolidge, largely to expand the economic section, which addresses debt and leadership.””

    I missed that. Thanks.

  3. It was a worldwide depression, which Coolidge saw coming and speculated grimly what “Wonderboy” (Hoover, who he disliked) would do about that. In retrospect, 1928 would have been a good election for Republicans to lose.

  4. I just finished the book and was struck by a couple of items;

    1. Coolidge entered politics as a TR progressive (as seemed to be most young Republicans at the time), but his upbringing in an isolated Vermont village taught him to prize independence as well as thrift. Later he was to discard the bits of progressivism that required larger government expenditures (both at the Federal and State level).

    2. He won elections despite of his tight purse by his increasing reputation as a trustworthy, honest man. Something all aspiring politicians should remember. His modesty as a public figure was a huge asset, not only because it was popular but because the public saw it was genuine.

    3. His education seemed both typical of his era and light years ahead of most college students today. (Similar of Lincoln, etc.) He read (apprenticed) the law instead of going to one of the newish law schools. Didn’t seem to hold him back.

    Finally, he kept his ego in check (I think he saw this as a personal failing and kept it from occurring).

  5. Good observations. I need to get back to the book and finish it. Coolidge had excellent relations with organized labor at the time.

    So far it has had some new insights for me and I have read almost everything written on Coolidge.

  6. Ira Katznelson’s review is more respectful than the silent sneer of Heilbrunn. I heard Shlaes on Kudlow and Hewitt, and I’m looking forward to more discussion.
    Back when I was a young political organizer, I met the bluest of blue bloods that Chicago has to offer at a wedding reception. Without a

  7. Ira Katznelson’s review is more respectful than the silent sneer of Heilbrunn. I heard Shlaes on Kudlow and Hewitt, and I’m looking forward to more discussion. I know little about Coolidge and the time.
    Back when I was a young political organizer, I met the bluest of blue bloods that Chicago has to offer at a wedding reception for his step-daughter. Without a word spoken by him I understood that my presence had been acknowledged, his duty done, and that I was dismissed.
    Heilbrunn’s tone reminds of that incident. These people are amusing.

  8. To go by the excerpts, Heilbrunn appears to be of the “Boo! Hiss…” and “Yea!” school of historical interpretation. In other words, relevant empirical measures need not matter to him. Which is hoe I see most of the fascist-Left operates these days (cf “drsanity” for further expansion of this thesis).

  9. When I started The Forgotten man i had believed the hype involving Coolidge: That he was pretty much a silent do-nothing figurehead.

    He apparently really believed in free markets and people, through the incentive of their own well-being, doing the right thing for society.

    On the coming Depression – he would have pretty much left things along for them to eventually right themselves. Hoover was the “whiz kid” engineer – his interventionist politics, and FDRs even worse ones, is what prolonged the Depression – making it over 10 years when the rest of the world was coming out of it.

    Silent Cal is one of the better Presidents seemingly forgotten by history.

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