Calvin Coolidge (by David Greenberg)
By David Greenberg
Times. 202 pp. $20
Calvin Coolidge didn't get a lot of respect while he was in the White House, and his reputation only suffered after he left office. To be sure, Coolidge's 1924 election -- following his ascent to the presidency upon the death the previous year of Warren G. Harding -- was impressive, but the victory said less about the Republican incumbent than about the ebullient condition of the economy and the disarray of the Democrats. Pundits made regular sport of Coolidge. "His ideal day," H.L. Mencken wrote, "is one on which nothing whatever happens." Walter Lippmann was being kind when he characterized Coolidge's philosophy as "Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences."
Coolidge's terseness became legendary. He could be "silent in five languages," a contemporary asserted. A favorite joke had a pretty young woman approaching the president to explain that she had bet a friend she could make him say more than two words. "You lose," Coolidge replied. Alice Roosevelt Longworth said he looked as though he'd been "weaned on a pickle." When Dorothy Parker heard in 1933 that Coolidge had just died, she archly inquired, "How could they tell?"
Historians weren't any kinder. The stock market crashed just months after Coolidge left office, triggering the Great Depression, and historians blamed him for ignoring structural weaknesses in the economy. Most judged his signature silence woefully inappropriate as a response to rising intolerance, which included the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, culminating in a march by some 40,000 of the white-robed bigots past the White House in August 1925.
Yet Ronald Reagan admired Coolidge and hung his portrait in the Cabinet Room. As well he might have, in the view of David Greenberg, who argues that Coolidge was a kind of proto-Reagan. Coolidge cut taxes repeatedly, slashed federal programs and adopted an uncompromising stance against striking government workers. More surprisingly, Greenberg adds, Coolidge was, if not a Great Communicator, at least a pretty darn good one, mastering radio in much the same way Reagan mastered television.
Greenberg's brisk, engaging volume is the latest in a series of short biographies of the presidents edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The series aims to be comprehensively egalitarian; William Henry Harrison, who served one uneventful month, will receive his 50,000 words, the same as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lasted 12 tumultuous years. Coolidge lands somewhere mid-spectrum in both time in office and significance. His accomplishments as president were as modest as his ambitions, consisting chiefly of downsizing the federal government and avoiding entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. His leadership style was passive to the point of willful paralysis. "If you keep dead still," he counseled Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, "they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again."
Coolidge liked to think of himself as a practitioner of laissez faire. In fact, he might better have called himself an advocate of laissez le bon temps roulez (if French had not been one of the languages in which he was silent). The Roaring Twenties were the decade of Prohibition, which didn't prevent most of those who wanted their booze from getting it. Coolidge, a son of Plymouth Notch, Vt., didn't indulge in alcohol, but he did indulge the business culture of the decade in its acquisitive ways. He supported an increase in the tariff to protect the domestic market and fatten corporate profits, and he famously declared that "the chief business of the American people is business." Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money and a belief that the self-proclaimed "New Era" really was new. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bursting, but that didn't prevent hard feelings. "Nero fiddled," Mencken said, "but Coolidge only snored."
Greenberg, who teaches history and media studies at Rutgers, has written previously on perceptions of Richard M. Nixon. His comparison of Coolidge with Reagan is apt as far as it goes (even if Greenberg overrates Coolidge's communication skills). But another parallel springs as readily to mind. Coolidge made a habit of bestowing nicknames on those around him; his tax cuts particularly benefited the rich; the hottest issue of his presidency was immigration (Coolidge in 1924 signed the most sweeping immigration reform in American history, drastically curtailing legal entry into the United States); flooding in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Mississippi required a major relief effort and prompted angry criticism of Washington's half-hearted response. But unlike George W. Bush, Coolidge left office after a single full term. "I do not choose to run," he said simply, and walked away. Considering how things have been going recently, Bush may wish he had followed Silent Cal's lead on this point, too. ·
H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.