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.”
(Harper) - ’Coolidge’ by Amity Shlaes
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.”