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Richard Cohen

Silent Cal's Lesson

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page A25

Under some unwritten rule, all modern presidents must pay homage to a like-minded predecessor. A picture is hung in the Oval Office. A bust is placed on the presidential desk. Bill Clinton, you will remember, made his pilgrimage up the Hudson to the Hyde Park estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. George W. Bush, in the estimation of others (if not himself), is another William McKinley, the president who transformed the GOP and made it dominant until the New Deal almost made it obsolete. Nobody, though, mentions Calvin Coolidge.

Yet Silent Cal, a president of great and warranted self-effacement, is precisely the predecessor Bush should have turned to when, for reasons not yet clear, he decided that Social Security is in crisis and only personal investment accounts could save it. Think again, Cal would have said.

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Social Security

As a talker, Coolidge might not have been much. But as a writer, he made a certain amount of sense. After leaving office, in fact, he wrote a magazine article explaining why he had not sought reelection. "It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion," Coolidge wrote. "They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment." There you have it: Social Security reform.

Probably because he was such a rock-ribbed isolationist, Coolidge did not mention how foreign policy can addle the presidential brain. It is in that area, of course, that a president is nearly supreme. It is an odd paradox of our times, but Bush may well have found it easier to take our nation to war for the wrong reasons than to monkey with Social Security for any reason. Saddam Hussein in his jail cell would go nuts trying to figure it out.

And yet it is the case. In fact, it is both cases. The move toward war in Iraq not only seemed to come from nowhere, it did come from nowhere. Early on, there were people in the highest reaches of the government who simply could not take the possibility seriously. Colin Powell is said to have been one. I know of others -- and when I called one of them not long after Sept. 11, he marveled at it all: Where was all this Iraq stuff coming from?

For our purposes today, the answer is immaterial. Suffice it to say that if a president wants war, he will get it. All he needs is a soft kiss from a supine Congress and the constant eruption of war whoops from the news media, including usually sagacious commentators such as myself. But should that very same president want to mess with Social Security, he will be valiantly fought by a quivering army on a daily aspirin regimen.

Mostly Bush forgot to make a case for his proposed reforms. What's amazing is that the White House insists he did. It will point you to statements Bush made as early as 1978 that Social Security "will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes" and equally strong statements made since. But while Bush did mention Social Security in the recent presidential campaign, he never did so with any specificity. A lot was discussed in that campaign -- Iraq, budget deficits and, of course, John Kerry's purported flip-flopping -- but not personal investment accounts. Bush did virtually nothing to prepare the nation for what was coming.

Here we get to Coolidge. In the throes of second-term ecstasy, Bush clearly thought that if he could take the country to war with little reason, he could change Social Security with even less. He was deceived by Iraq. But that war had been preceded by others, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War. Hussein was a well-established monster and enemy. All it took was a little exaggeration to make the case. Social Security is a different matter. It seems to work. It needs to be recalibrated, sure, but it is not in "crisis."

Bush should have planted a bust of Coolidge on his desk and thought of him before attempting to take the nation where it does not seem to want to go. Instead, in his mind at least, the president chose a different model: himself. That's what Coolidge would have called "the malady of self-delusion" -- a political disorder presidents inherit from themselves.

cohenr@washpost.com


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