A Quiet Man in a Roaring Time
by David Greenberg
Times Books; 202 pp. $20.00
While Calvin Coolidge will probably never make the top ten in those rankings of our presidents that emerge periodically from academic surveys, his reputation has been considerably rehabilitated over the past 40 years from the depths to which the New Deal historians consigned it. His strengths as chief executive are now appreciated, and the immense popularity he enjoyed in his own time is understood as more than a mere aberration of public taste. This modern, more rounded view is the one on display, most of the time, in David Greenberg's Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge's presidency began with one of the most poignant episodes in American political history. When Warren Harding died suddenly in San Francisco on Aug. 2, 1923, Vice President Coolidge was on vacation at his father's house in the remote Vermont hamlet where he had been raised. Woken at midnight by the news, Coolidge was sworn in by his father — a notary public — in the house's small parlor. There being no electricity, the scene was illuminated by a kerosene lamp. Coolidge later recalled that his first thought on learning of his accession was: "I believe I can swing it."
Swing it he could. Many were skeptical of this dry, taciturn Yankee, but Coolidge soon dispelled their doubts. As Mr. Greenberg writes:
Coolidge managed several feats soon after taking office. He contained, after initial missteps, the burgeoning scandals that would posthumously tar Harding's legacy. He set a political agenda that, despite his troubles pushing it through Congress, helped define his era. And, for all his political errors in dealing with Capitol Hill, he mastered the new politics of public opinion, emerging as a hugely popular politician associated with the decade's economic surge.
"Silent Cal" was a pro-business, small-government president to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of today's conservatives. The tax cuts effected by Coolidge and by his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon ("under whom three presidents served," goes the old quip), were so effective that, as Mr. Greenberg reports, "by the end of Coolidge's second term most Americans paid no federal income taxes at all." William Humphrey, who was Coolidge's appointee to the Federal Trade Commission, described the FTC as "an instrument of oppression and disturbance and injury" to American industry. Americans liked Coolidge's policies because of the great prosperity that resulted. Inflation-adjusted GNP grew 49 percent during the Harding and Coolidge presidencies, the highest growth on record. Inflation and unemployment statistics were just as impressive.
Whether Coolidge's policies led directly to the 1929 crash and the Depression that soon followed has been much debated. Mr. Greenberg takes a fairly stern line: "Coolidge's naïve faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business … deterred him from even asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune." But why was Coolidge's faith naïve when it led the nation to such spectacular success? And was anyone else asking those mitigating questions?
The biographer of a president is mostly concerned with the public man, of course, but he should give us something of the private one too. Here Mr. Greenberg has fulfilled his responsibilities as much as can reasonably be expected in a summary work of this kind. A key development in Coolidge studies has been Robert Gilbert's recent examination of the papers of Coolidge's physician. In The Tormented President (2003), Mr. Gilbert argued that the death of Coolidge's beloved younger son, Calvin Jr., from an infection in the midst of the 1924 re-election campaign sent him into a clinical depression from which he never fully recovered. But Mr. Greenberg pooh-poohs this claim, in my opinion correctly, saying that "the continuities in [Coolidge's] character before and after the boy's passing seem more salient than any changes."
One important element of Coolidge's personality was a strong sense of practicality and a disdain for abstract thought. Mr. Greenberg quotes a revealing line from the president's own autobiography where Coolidge describes the Republicans' 1920 triumph as "the end of a period which has seemed to substitute words for things." Though intelligent, Coolidge was no intellectual. His religious belief was instinctual and unreflective, as Mr. Greenberg notes. I have always thought that Coolidge's rhapsodizing on the beauties of the natural world in his autobiography gives off a whiff of paganism, as does his musing on the death of his son: "I don't know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House."
Mr. Greenberg has taken positions on aspects of Coolidge's legacy and personality that not all Coolidgeans will agree with. He finds Coolidge contemptuous of his wife's intellect for instance, and inattentive to the farm crisis. But within his assigned length — Calvin Coolidge is part the American Presidents series of short biographies, under the editorship of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — Mr. Greenberg has done an admirable job. He captures the character and achievements of this odd president, who seems at first sight to have been so out of tune with his times — Coolidge certainly did not "roar" with the Roaring Twenties — but who was in fact just what the country needed, the still center about which the charivari of Jazz Age America whirled.
In 1994 John Coolidge, the president's older son, told me: "My father could not possibly be elected to anything today." That is surely true. Looking at the people who do get elected to our republic's highest offices today, it is also regrettable.