In 1997, the anti-tax evangelistGrover Norquist launched a campaign he called the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, with the aim of putting the name of the former president on virtually anything that could not raise its voice in protest: airports, expressways, federal buildings. Reagan, for his part, had started a legacy project of his own as president. Calvin Coolidge — long absent from the political consciousness and long dismissed by historians as blinkered and benighted — was a Reagan favorite. He and other conservatives looked to Coolidge as a kind of proto-Reagan, a patron saint of parsimony and limited government. Reagan moved Coolidge’s portrait into the Cabinet Room, cited Coolidge in his speeches and inspired a wave of revisionist histories that sought to install Coolidge in the presidential pantheon.
That project lately has been picking up steam, and a new biography by Amity Shlaes should provide a full head of it. Shlaes, the author of a recent polemic about the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man,” runs the Four Percent Growth project at the George W. Bush Center, but “Coolidge,” her monument to the 30th president, is less an economist’s brief or a historian’s appraisal than a Puritan’s parable. What Coolidge’s aide C. Bascom Slemp said of his president could also be said of Shlaes: that his fervor for budget-cutting was “based on the stern judgment of the moralist.”
This is apparent from the book’s opening sentence: “Debt,” Shlaes intones, “takes its toll.” She begins by telling the story of a great-grand-uncle of Calvin Coolidge, a Vermont farmer named Oliver Coolidge, who spent some time in debtor’s prison in 1849. There is no evidence that this remote episode had any particular meaning for Calvin Coolidge. But for Shlaes it is an opportunity to inveigh against the evils of debt, and two pages later she brings her point home like a blunt instrument. “There have been times,” she writes, “when the American people, like Oliver Coolidge, lost heart, feeling themselves locked in a prison of their own making. There have been times when debt pinned down the United States as it once pinned down Oliver.” Lest even this appear too oblique, Shlaes suggests that Calvin Coolidge’s “perseverance . . . may well help Americans now turn a curse to a blessing or, at the very least, find the heart to continue their own persevering.”
This is history-as-therapy, or biography-as-advocacy. Either way, it is a questionable use for the substantial research that Shlaes has done into a president who deserves a richer portrayal than he typically gets; even in his own time, Coolidge lent himself to easy caricature as a tight-lipped, taciturn New Englander. Shlaes has an eye for detail, and her portrait of Coolidge is not without nuance. But she is ultimately intent on a different kind of caricature — Coolidge as role model. This is the sort of biography that just comes right out and says it: Its subject is a “hero.” Not just a hero, but “a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts.”
“Economic heroism,” Shlaes adds, perhaps sensing resistance, “is subtler than other forms of heroism and therefore harder to appreciate.”
Not for Shlaes. One must search far and wide in the literature to find anywhere such a romanticization of the act of cutting federal outlays. This reveals itself in passages that would make even Paul Ryan blush, passages tinged with the stilted sort of eroticism one sees in Ayn Rand novels. “Together,” Shlaes writes, “the new president and his budget director [Herbert M. Lord] cut, and then cut again. . . . Even when he and Lord thought they could not cut more, they still cut.” Shlaes describes the flurry of tax-cutting that Coolidge undertook with his Treasury secretary, the financier Andrew Mellon, in similarly breathless terms: The cuts they proposed in late 1925 were “like so many Christmas tree ornaments for the coming season: estate taxes and gift taxes, as well as taxes on cars, mahjongg sets, yacht use, and brokers were all coming down, as well as taxes on both cigars and cigar holders.” (In fairness to Shlaes, sometimes a cigar tax cut is just a cigar tax cut.)
In Shlaes’s rendering, the apparent drivers of the economic growth of the 1920s just happen to align with the priorities of present-day Republicans: tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation, a deference to business as the instrument of the public interest. These were the policies, Shlaes insists, that made the ’20s roar — that made the economy boom, “a glorious surplus” arise and tax revenue spike. “By lowering rates on the wealthy,” Shlaes tells us, “the Treasury had actually collected more from them.” Again, lest you miss the talking point: “People understood now that lowering taxes might often be the better move.” Most important, Coolidge — who in 1925 famously declared that “the chief business of the American people is business” — had freed the private sector from its constraints. Shlaes, stirred to lyricism, writes that “commerce could do anything and touch any place now that it was, finally, aloft.”
Shlaes omits other drivers of that decade’s economic growth, chief among them the explosion of consumer credit — in a word, debt — that allowed many Americans to enjoy, for a time, lifestyles well above what they could afford. Up to that point, it had taken cash, and not a small amount of it, to buy something like a car; by 1926, however, three-quarters of all car buyers were doing so on credit, prompting them to reach for bigger, better-equipped, more expensive ones.
The ease of obtaining credit fueled the creation of a consumer culture. Newly sophisticated advertising techniques encouraged the feeling that modern conveniences — electric mixers, blenders, dishwashers, refrigerators — were a new and distinctly American kind of entitlement, Manifest Destiny on an installment plan. Silent Cal, for all his moralizing against debt, was silent on this; so, too, is his biographer.
Here and elsewhere, Shlaes ignores or obscures the rot at the base of the Coolidge prosperity: the overheating of sectors such as autos and housing, the irresponsibility of the banking system, the persistence of poverty, and the tolerance of vast disparities in wealth and income. One need not have been a radical redistributionist to be concerned that during a decade in which corporate profits rose by 63 percent, factory workers saw only a 9 percent increase in wages. Their purchasing power, especially that of farmers, was far too weak to lift the economy when the bottom fell out. Indeed, the surge of speculation on Wall Street toward the end of the 1920s was not so much a cause but a symptom of deeper, structural dysfunctions in the U.S. economy. These were exposed, but were not created, by the stock market collapse of 1929.
Shlaes’s contention is that the Great Crash would have come and gone had it not been for Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, their addiction to spending and their mania for government action. If Coolidge “fell short,” Shlaes allows, it was by failing to foresee “the extent to which succeeding presidents and Congresses would diverge from precedent when it came to economic policy.” In other words, Coolidge’s only mistake was in trusting his successors not to screw everything up.
For all its energetic prose and vivid detail, “Coolidge,” at its core, is a reductive, relentlessly didactic exercise. There is nothing wrong with looking to history for lessons, but it is another thing entirely to eschew its complexities, ignore its self-contradictions and render it, instead, as a morality play — one in which, according to the medieval formula, man begins in uncorrupted virtue (the founding era), falls into temptation (Wilsonian adventurism and indebtedness), repents (enter Coolidge and Mellon) and is saved. It is a cycle that we mortals are doomed to repeat (substitute for the preceding parentheticals the Coolidge prosperity, the New Deal and the Ryan budget), but surely we, like Coolidge, will persevere.
By Amity Shlaes
Harper. 565 pp. $35