Progressives of large intellect, such as Woodrow Wilson, and of more modest equipage, like Barack Obama, endeavor to Gigantic Projects. Even when the world does not much care for Gigantic Projects, the progressive conjurers nonetheless proceed with them, and inevitably things go haywire, absolutely haywire: appallingly mismanaged bureaucracies, hoards of government contractors, hucksters with a glint in their eye, and, of course, too many budget overruns to count. Unintended consequences proliferate: street crime breaks out, labor unrest begins. As the poet Yeats observed, “Things fall apart.” To us, history’s bystanders (and taxpayers), the spectacle is bewildering, even frightening. Is it happening again, in this time of Obama, after all the years of prosperity and peace that the Old Cowboy auspicated?
By 1920, Warren Gamaliel Harding—today a figure of fun, but back then about to be his era’s much-beloved 29th president—sensed the looming costs of Wilson’s Gigantic Projects. So did Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s running mate, and others, for instance, Thomas Riley Marshall, Wilson’s vice president. There were the budget deficits from the Great War, the bureaucracies created to fight it, and various boondoggles that by comparison make Solyndra look like a smashing success. President Wilson was off roaming the land desperately pushing for his great treaty, while Harding, Coolidge, and other mere mortals sought to end the president’s “experiments,” or as Harding saw them, “change for the sake of change.” There was revolution in Russia, anarchic turbulence across Europe, and here at home, serious labor unrest tempting the fates. Nineteen-twenty was a time like our time, an Era of Foreboding.
IN HER SPLENDID NEW BOOK, Coolidge (Harper, $35), Amity Shlaes captures those days and subtly addresses our own. The book is written as the biography of a much-maligned president who happened to have been a success in his most important public policy undertakings, and it should be read as a textbook for solving the grave problems now facing America. Coolidge was given to understatement—at times, to no statement at all. His laconic style, I suspect, charmed the sturdy voters of his time, even as garrulity seems to charm the frivolous voters of ours. Silent Cal also stood for budget cutting, tax reduction, civility, consensus, and the efficacy of limited government. He was, in Shlaes’ words, “the great refrainer.” President Coolidge was the precise opposite of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and—even worse—the arrested adolescences of our era of Entertainment Tonight wunderkinds: the Clintons, Al Gore, and Jean-François Kerry.
Refraining has a venerable place in the history of political thought. In the 15th century, the Renaissance statesman and political philosopher, suave Francesco Guicciardini, enjoined others:
If you attempt certain things at the right time, they are easy to accomplish—in fact, they almost get done by themselves. If you undertake them before the time is right, not only will they fail, but they will often become impossible to accomplish even when the time would have been right. Therefore, do not rush things madly, do not precipitate them; wait for them to mature, wait for the right season.
Typically, Cal was more succinct. “Never go out to meet trouble,” he advised. “If you will just sit still, nine times out of 10 someone will intercept it before it reaches you.” He was stupendously successful at politics, never losing a contest between his 1898 race for city council and winning the presidency in his own right in 1924 with 54 percent of the vote over a Democrat, John W. Davis, and a certifiable Progressive, the sainted Robert M. La Follette. He usually won by impressive margins. As I say, there was something about his chemistry that was irresistible to the electorate, even at times to the New York Times. I submit that there is no one quite like Cal in all of American history. That is his political record. Naturally, progressives obliterated it.
For eight decades he and his belief in limited government have been the target of contempt from progressives (or as they once were called, Liberals). More recently President Ronald Reagan, an audacious champion of the Coolidge way, was attacked as a simpleton and a failure—his bellicosity, his arrogance, his deficits. Even as Reagan revived an anemic economy and won the Cold War—something Cal never had the opportunity to attempt—he was dismissed by the progressives. Yet Cal did make a stab at foreign policy based on America’s emerging role as a great power: the Kellogg-Briand Pact. With it he snookered the wily French diplomat Aristide Briand and advanced the concept of the rule of law without undermining the sovereignty of the United States.
How devoted to delegitimizing the 30th president have the progressives been? Well, they have been hard at it for a long time, as even I can attest, bringing in young Bill Kristol as my co-witness. In the 1970s we two attended a lecture by the venerable constitutional scholar Professor Alpheus T. Mason. There we sat and listened to Professor Mason assume the role of stand-up comic, theatrically retailing some of Cal’s most famous lines: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Harrumph, harrumph! “Inflation is repudiation.” Harrumph, again. “The business of America is business.” On and on Alph went. When he was finished, students laughed, and I raised a tremulous hand. “Professor,” said I, “I noticed an apparent thread of continuity in all Coolidge’s statements.” “What is that?” asked the comic genius. “Every one was true.” Applause. In his political career, as in Professor Mason’s skit, most of the things Coolidge believed were true. His presidency came out a success despite his critics’ labors.
Yet Mason was only following the progressives’ script written years earlier, and by the 1970s it was getting pretty tiresome. The real question is whether Cal was right when he challenged all the progressive “experimentations” first trotted out by Wilson and then by Herbert Hoover and triumphantly by Roosevelt and his New Dealers.
SHLAES HAS BEEN a one-person demolition team to these legendary presidents. In her 2007 book, The Forgotten Man, she exposed the falsehoods of claims that New Dealers ended the Depression. Now she swings her wrecking ball hard at their grim caricature of Woeful Cal, and with lesser violence at their caricature of Good Time Warren Harding. Sure, Harding’s Ohio Gang was a cadre of White House revelers, but White House revelers are not unheard of even in our day. Recall the Clintons’ Arkansas Gang. If Joe Biden runs for the presidency in 2016, as he is threatening to do, we shall see Harding’s like again.
That said, at the outset of his administration, before Harding got down to parties and poker and golf, he oversaw the passage of the Budget and Accounting Act, which allowed economies to be made in the federal government. Because of its passage, he, and later Cal, could for the first time present a unified budget and have a staff to do what was necessary: cut.
Cal spent much of his time in Washington cutting budgets. He was ardent to continue what Harding had begun. He wanted the budget pared down to $3 billion a year, and he came very close. Cal did it despite years of Big Spending pressures from the Democratic minority, and even from those Republicans infected by a kind of Big Government influenza, progressivism. There were the Gigantic Projects, such as the hydroelectric construction at Muscle Shoals, and the noble gestures, such as the veterans’ pensions. Cal red-penciled them all. That was one aspect of his plan for the federal government.
The other was tax cuts. Cal came slowly to his tax-cutting zeal. In fact, in his early political years, even he was bewitched by progressivism. Yet by the time he got to Washington, he was susceptible to the economic thought of a man who will go down in history as a pioneering mind of modern conservatism: Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon.
Mellon advocated tax cuts for everyone, especially tax cuts at the margin. Cal was fetched. Mellon called his way of thinking “scientific taxation.” He had it all figured out years before our own Art Laffer. Today we call it supply-side economics. Whatever the name, it revives the economy even as it is dismissed by the elites of Coolidge’s day or by elites today. These elites’ insulation from sound economic policy is as much a part of their mental makeup as superstition is a part of the mental makeup of a Yanomami Indian preferring life in the Brazilian rain forests to a cool flat in downtown Rio. The elites are frankly primitive.
Coolidge and Mellon cut the top income tax rate to 25 percent, three percentage points lower than President Reagan’s historic 1986 level. As they cut, revenue climbed. Mellon, first with Harding and then with Coolidge, oversaw the revenue acts of 1921, 1924, 1926, and 1928—all representing robust revenue growth despite tax reduction. In fact, the GDP grew by 25 percent during these years. Through all the budget cuts and tax reduction, the critics—the progressives in the forefront—squalled about income inequality between the rich and the rest of America. So obsessed with the rich, or in Obama’s world “the top 1 percent,” are the elites that to discomfit the wealthy they would keep us all out-at-the-elbows and bowed by taxes. Under Coolidge and Mellon, practically everyone was better off.
The number of unemployed, which stood at 5.7 million in July 1921, had dropped to 1.8 million by the time Cal departed Washington. Manufacturing had climbed by a third. Iron and steel production had doubled. Main Street got richer. The stock market jumped too—though it developed a bubble that Shlaes, in her earlier book, has argued should have been handled differently by Hoover and then Roosevelt. The Depression was Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s, not Cal’s. Moreover, with his combination of economies in government and tax cuts, Coolidge had reduced the national debt from $28 billion to $18 billion. He actually outdid Reagan. After the drear of Jimmy Carter, the Old Cowboy cut taxes and with Paul Volcker slew inflation. He put the economy on a growth curve for years to come, but he did not balance the budget and cut the size of the federal government. Only Cal did that.
IF AMERICA IS EVER going to get out of its current economic decline, it is going to have to grow its way out. Coolidge and Mellon are showing the way.
One disconcerting image, however, lurks through Shlaes’ otherwise very reassuring book. It is the literary figure Sinclair Lewis and his powerful friend H.L. Mencken. They and such cohorts as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and many more had a profound influence on the 1920s, the 1930s, and beyond. Could they have had a deeper influence on America than Calvin Coolidge? When, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Cal dismissed Lewis and his satire of middle America, saying, “The world waits in our ante room for our advice and assistance. The name Mr. Lewis gives us is unimportant. The records of our deeds will surpass all books.” I am not so sure.
Lewis’ mockery of America’s stratum of sober (incidentally, Lewis died an alcoholic), hard-working, God-fearing citizens was shared by many writers at the time. These notions live on into our time, though without equal literary talent and with an infantile quality. In the 1920s, with hilarity and in prolonged satires, Lewis, Mencken, and their allies gave fizz to that otherwise boring point of view of progressives. Their literary cadres gave formidable artistic support to the visionaries of Gigantic Projects. Their point of view endures in the much less gifted critics of America today. Modern America is much more tolerant, diverse, cosmopolitan; yet still the mindless voices of the 1920s can be heard, now telling us to eat berries and nuts, drive cars powered by wind, get a good education at some cow college.
Well, Mencken lived on into the 1930s and smartened up. Faced with the arrival of Roosevelt, he wrote in 1933, “Should the day ever dawn when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well be that Cal’s bones, now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite, will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.” That day has come, Menck.