At the White House, they've dusted off the oil portait of Calvin Coolidge, brought it down from the attic and hung it in a place of honor near the president. That's highly appropriate, for the other day the president testified to the esteem in which he holds our 30th chief executive.
"Now you hear a lot of jokes about Silent Cal Coolidge," he said admiringly, "but I think the joke is on the people that make jokes because if you look at his record, he cut the taxes four times. We had probably the greatest growth and prosperity that we've ever known. And I have taken heed of that because if he did nothing, maybe that's the answer [for] the federal government."
All this is too good. Too many analysts, including this one, have made too much of the similarities between Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. Coolidge provides a much better presidential prototype for Reagan.
Coolidge was a real Republican. His actions, which so suited his times, appear strikingly familiar now in a period that increasingly resembles the hands-off governmental approach of the Coolidge big boom era of supposedly endless prosperity in the '20s. The same spirit that characterized those days seems to have gripped the country today as Reagan rides a wave of great personal popularity.
Americans today, like their fellow citizens of 60 years ago, are weary of confronting severe new challenges and complexities. They want to bask in the glow of a new great boom, and are as eager to follow the reassuring lead of Ronald Reagan as they were that of Calvin Coolidge -- and for the same reasons.
Under Coolidge, the country believed it had found the magic economic formula that led inevitably to greater and greater growth and more and more prosperity. The Reagan promise of entering a new golden day is no less enticing. Resurrecting Coolidge, as he is doing, fits right in with his underlying governmental and philosophical approaches.
He is correct in viewing Coolidge as someone who deserves more serious scrutiny. Not that Silent Cal didn't honestly earn much of his reputation as being something of history's joke. His dry little aphorisms and simple beliefs bespoke a narrow vision; even then, they easily lent themselves to ridicule. It was Coolidge who gave Americans such memorable examples of presidential wisdom as:
The business of America is business .
When it's hot in one part of the country, it's cold in another .
When people are out of work, unemployment results .
But he perfectly matched the temper of his times. In some ways, perhaps, he created it. He was canonized as the patron saint of business, and the views he expressed struck a deep chord in Americans. As Frederick Lewis Allen, the premier historian of the '20s, observes, the most original thing about Coolidge was his uncompromising unoriginality:
"Calvin Coolidge still believed in the old American copy-book maxims when almost everybody else had half forgotten them or was beginning to doubt them. . . . This philosophy of hard work and frugal living and piety crowned with success might have been brought down from some Vermont attic where McGuffey's Reader gathered dust. But it was so old that it looked new; it was so exactly what uncounted Americans had been taught at their mother's knee that it touched what remained of the pioneer spirit in their hearts; and Coolidge set it forth with refreshing brevity. . . ."
As Allen also notes of Coolidge:
"His proudest boast was that he cut down the cost of running the government by systematic cheeseparing, reduced the public debt, and brought about four reductions in federal taxes, aiding not only those with small incomes but even more conspicuously those with large. . . . An uninspired and unheroic policy, you suggest? But it was sincere: Calvin Coolidge honestly believed that by asserting himself as little as possible and by lifting the tax burdens of the rich he was benefiting the whole country -- as perhaps he was. And it was perfectly in keeping with the uninspired and unheroic political temper of the times. For the lusty businessmen who in these fat years had become the arbiters of national opinion did not envisage the government . . . as a champion of human rights or a redresser of wrongs. The prosperity bandwagon was bringing them rapidly toward their hearts' desire, and politics might block the traffic. They did not want a man of action in the presidency; they wanted as little government as possible, at as low cost as possible, and this dour New Englander who drove the prosperity bandwagon with so slack a rein embodied their idea of supreme statesmanship."
Later, of course, the great boom went bust. The permanent plateau of prosperity the administration claimed to have found was seen only to have plunged the nation into its greatest depression. Coolidge's place in the hearts of his countrymen plummeted as swiftly as the collapsing stock markets. He was consigned to the ashbin of history, where, until recently, he has quietly resided.
The point is not some invidious analogy linking the failures of Coolidge prosperity with the promise of the Reagan economic program the does contain, as Reagan himself says, similar governmental approaches to those employed by Coolidge -- the tax cuts, the get-government-off-our-backs attitudes, the prime-the-pump, help-the-rich-first, and let-the-rest-trickle-down philosophies now in place.
Nor could any American be other than relieved to see the national mood swing back from the unrelieved pessimism and handwringing over presumed insoluble problems of recent years. To help a nation believe in itself is no small achievement; Reagan deserves great credit for having changed the collective state of mind. "The era of selfdoubt is over," he says, and the nation cheers.
The problem lies in other areas. Here, a Coolidge analogy is valid. The danger today, as it was in the '20s, comes from putting too much faith in simple solutions.
Reagan moves forward with supreme confidence in the correctness of his economic ideas. Members of his administration, and he himself, seem convinced they have found the solution to our economic woes. They tend to dismiss doubts expressed about the success of their program as being politically or ideologically motivated. That is a mistake. While politics unquestionably plays a part in some warnings about the risks of his so-called "supply side" approach, serious qualms exist among many who ardently wish him to succeed. Their concern stems from the unproven nature of his program coupled with the widespread belief that sharply cutting taxes while simultaneously massively increasing defense spending is inherently -- some say "savagely" -- inflationary.
Along with this comes another concern. It was perhaps best expressed in a recent speech by Albert M. Wognilower, managing director of The First Boston Corp., at a St. Gallen Graduate School international management symposium in Saint-Gall, Switzerland. Wojnilower, one of the major Wall Street figures publicly expressing caution over Reagan's approach, warns against a tendency to seek "simplistic but self-defeating 'solutions' to the various internal conflicts" facing the country.
Americans today, he believes, share "a profound national nostalgia for a past viewed as simpler and more pleasant, a yearning that is unmistakably evident in contemporary dress, theater, religion and other aspects of our culture." But, he says, "The risks now lie in pretending that solutions rather than compromises exist and in giving in to the nostalgic belief that there ever was or could be a time when Thoreau's dictum 'that government is best which governs least' could hold for a world power with the geographic, cultural and ethnic diversity of the U.S."
The challenge for America, he adds, "is whether we manage, crassly put, to stamp out nostalgia" and then "establish a realistic and stable sense of our vast but far from limitless strength."
Stamp out nostalgia? Tomorrow, perhaps, but certainly not now in the second coming of Calvin Coolidge.