COOLIDGE, REVISIONIST OR ACCURATE PORTRAIT OF THE PRESIDENT?

Amity Shlaes new biography COOLIDGE  has received its share of controversial reviews including  charges of  a “white-washed” Coolidge presidency. There is little doubt that Shlaes places  ” silent Cal” in a favorable light. However, that is not at all unusual as historians review a presidency in a perspective from a hundred years distance.  Perhaps the best example of the retrospective is David McCullough’s  reincarnation  of John Adams.  I am not suggesting that the two books or presidencies are comparable but the passage of time allows authors the opportunity to look through a different prism.  Be assured that Shales portrait of Calvin Coolidge does not attempt to elevate him to John Adams status, however, she clearly establishes the image of a strong, independent thinking president capable of making unpopular decisions that he deemed correct for the country.

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Coolidge served as president, during the roaring 20s, from 1923 to 1929.  He remains famous for small government, balanced budgets and ” the business of America is business.”   Unlike some reviews, I do not think Coolidge is a whitewash of the administration, but rather an overview of the thinking in America following the First World War and the national desire to return to ” normalcy.”  Ironically, Coolidge came into his political career as an acolyte of Teddy Roosevelt  progressivism and acted accordingly during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts.  Coolidge was a reluctant recruit as Warren Harding’s Vice-President, he disliked the position, but his New England work ethic underscored his making a best effort to support Harding’s policies.  The two were exact opposites, Harding the gregarious politician telling the electorate what they wanted to hear,  Coolidge, quiet and reserved.

Shlaes does an excellent job in depicting Coolidge’s transition to the presidency following Harding’s unexpected death.  He moves into the oval office with no great fanfare and picks up the reins of governing turning quickly to his zeal for a balanced budget, eliminating the war-time bureaucracy and establishing the concept of reducing taxes to stimulate the economy out of a post war recession.  Shlaes makes a case that Coolidge handed off a strong economy to Herbert Hoover after Coolidge kept his commitment that he would not run  for a second term.  However, Shlaes  book makes no mention of the rampant speculation on Wall Street that occurred during the later years of the Coolidge Administration which lead to the crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Does Coolidge share the blame or does it all fall at the feet of  Herbert Hoover?

A most interesting part of the book is that once again we go back over 100 years to discover recurring themes facing today’s American economy:  The fairness of the tax policy, protective tariffs, balanced federal budget, government spending, the deficits of war-time spending, and the overriding argument of  big government versus small government.

COOLIDGE is well written and for lovers of history it is a look back at a presidency almost forgotten.  COOLIDGE  offers a  glimpse at the expectations of life in America following  World War I , the “War to end all wars. ”  It was the period of the first automobiles produced on the Ford assembly line, electrification,  the birth of the aviation industry, Lindbergh and the  passage of the Kellogg-Briand international treaty, the successor to the failed  Woodrow Wilson League of Nations.

You will learn much about Coolidge the family man, his wife Grace and the tragedy of the death of his son  Calvin, Jr. while Coolidge was in office.  The journey— from his birth in  Plymouth Notch, Vermont  to Amherst College, small town attorney in Northampton, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Senate, Massachusetts Governor,  Vice-President and President of the United States–a remarkable life.

 

 

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