Frugal, laconic Calvin Coolidge instinctively applied his conservative principles. The result was just what we need today: low debt and rising prosperity.
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More recently, author William L. Shirer recalled “the incredible smugness and emptiness of the Calvin Coolidge era.” He was not alone in such cheap shots. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. castigated Coolidge for being too beholden to business and pictured him as a boorish philistine.
To today’s left, Coolidge was a bogeyman. The Huffington Post quoted an unnamed Washington Democrat who sought to tie the Tea Party to Coolidge. Mike Lux, a left-wing political consultant, linked him to the Paul Ryan budget: “[Republicans] want to take us back to the era of Calvin Coolidge, when the advances of the last 80 years simply didn’t exist,” Lux wrote on the Huffington Post.
On the other hand, many on the right long for a return to Coolidge’s principles. Peggy Noonan, among others, saw Coolidge in Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana. George Will calls him “the last president with a proper sense of his office’s constitutional proportions.” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who served as the honorary co-chair of Rick Perry’s recent prayer event, predicted a President Perry “would be the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge.”
Predictably, what Land hopes for, Andrew Romano of Newsweek fears. “Perry…would do more to limit the power of federal government — or at least attempt to do more—than any president since Calvin Coolidge,” Romano warned after reading an interview Perry did with his magazine last fall. But if Perry wants to claim the Coolidge mantle, he won’t be alone. Sarah Palin’s book America by Heart brims with favorable references to the 30th president. And Michele Bachmann extolled Coolidge’s economic policies on the House floor in 2009.
Unlike George W. Bush, Coolidge believed that sometimes the government can’t do much at all to mend the people’s woes. In fact, the trick often is to do nothing, which is what Coolidge did by vetoing a farm subsidy bill—the McNary-Haugen bill—in 1927 and again in 1928. “Farmers have never made much money. I don’t believe we can do much about it,” he explained. Coolidge’s was a government of limits because he recognized there are limits to what government can do. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he rightly noted.
COOLIDGE’S VIEW OF government couldn’t be more different from President Obama’s. He believed in the “right of the individual to possess, enjoy, and control the dollar which he earns.” Liberty “would be…a mockery unless it secured to the individual the rewards of his own effort and industry.” President Obama doesn’t believe in such a right. “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money,” he preached. “We don’t want to stop [entrepreneurs] from fulfilling their responsibility to help grow our economy.”
Coolidge would never have said such a thing, because he understood what Obama does not, that personality matters a lot to policy. And he was a master of what one admirer called “brilliant flashes of silence.” “No man ever listened himself out of a job,” Coolidge noted on one occasion. Another time he declared, “I don’t recall any candidate for president that ever injured himself very much by not talking.” And then there was this: “They can’t hang you for what you don’t say.”
He was, in fact, a painfully shy man. When it came to his political thought, he was seeped in the classics—he translated Dante on his honeymoon—and the Founding Fathers. He genuinely believed in the Declaration of Independence’s teaching that all men were created equal, and he fought for it not only by keeping government limited, but by working to criminalize lynching and by extending the promise of citizenship to every Native American.
The last president to write most of his own speeches, Coolidge spoke so eloquently on so many subjects that it is a shame that few people read him today. Indeed, “Silent Cal” authored three collections of speeches and an autobiography. He wrote a daily, post-presidential syndicated column that numbered more than 300 pieces. He gave well over 500 press conferences during his five and half years as president. All of these well-attended chats were on background; Coolidge would let the press quote a serious administration official, but never him directly. “The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately,” he counseled in his Autobiography.
Obama, by comparison, uses words so indiscriminately that it seems hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t deliver a major speech. These are described as major because, in Obama’s view, nothing he does is minor. His favorite word is “unprecedented,” which he uses most about himself. Obama has suggested in some remarks that he fancies himself a new Lincoln, a political messiah, another “tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer.” Invoking Lincoln when he announced for president, Obama called on his fellow Americans to “gather…to transform a nation.” The question is toward what ends that transformation is intended.
For Obama, Lincoln is personal, but for Coolidge, Lincoln was political. Coolidge, too, was thought to be Lincoln’s “heir,” because he spoke so frequently of Lincoln’s political thought, often reverently. He argued that Lincoln was a great man because he “made the same appeal to his countrymen which all great men have made…it came not from his belief in their weakness but in their strength.” Lincoln’s “great achievement consisted in bringing the different elements of his country into a more truly moral relationship.”
But Coolidge, unlike Obama, never gave the impression he was the chosen one. He believed that it was the people who decided who was great. Obama, on the other hand, compared himself to Moses. Electing him would be the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” he said during his campaign.
COOLIDGE KNEW WELL the danger of letting politics go to the head. “Nine-tenths of [the visitors to the White House] want something they ought not to have,” he held. He had a simple solution for dealing with these visitors: “If you keep dead-still they will run down in three or four minutes.” President Obama, who fetes Andy Stern of the SEIU and other union leaders, gives such importunate visitors everything they want.
He was also determined to avoid being taken in by flatterers. “It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion,” he reflected. “They are surrounded by worshippers….They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation, which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming arrogant or careless.” President Obama is rightly denounced for being both, and it has something to do with the self-delusion fostered by the adulation he has received during his presidency, his 2008 campaign, and long before.
Conservatives should work toward nothing less than what Harding and Coolidge vowed in 1920—“a return to normalcy,” by which they meant a turn away from “things …go[ing] to hell in a handbasket,” as they had during the Wilson years. What Harding promised, Coolidge delivered. On the eve of the 2008 election, Obama promised to “fundamentally transform” America. He delivered, too, but with “hope and change” that have left us with a changed credit rating. The task now is to return to normalcy once more, before it’s too late.
It won’t be easy. But as Coolidge wrote: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. We draw our Presidents from the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.” In 1928 he announced “I do not choose to run,” eschewed a likely election victory, and retired to Northampton, Massachusetts. Come 2012, we will have a chance to help Obama resemble Coolidge and quietly return to private life.
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H/T to National Review Online