Coolidge, Amity Shlaes. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
Summary: An account of Coolidge as a man of quiet conviction who presided over a great American transformation.
Calvin Coolidge was always one of those presidents who was a name on the list of presidents who otherwise seemed unmemorable. Especially in a time of a president who dominates the news coverage, Coolidge might come as a pleasant breath of fresh air–someone who cared more for deeds than words, and sometimes influenced more by what he did not do. Perhaps he is not better known simply because he was a president between the wars, during the great economic expansion known as “the roaring Twenties.”
Amity Shlaes gives us a presidential biography of Coolidge that certainly raised him in my estimation while reminding me of the limitations and challenges every president faces. Shlaes begins with describing the Coolidge family tree–those that left Vermont for better land, and those who stayed to eke out a life on its rocky soil, a lineage tracing back to the early colonists, peopled by both farmers and politicians. We trace his education at Black River and St Johnsbury Academies and then on to Amherst, where this quiet young man excels in debate. He establishes a law practice, winning clients attracted to his quiet efficiency that cost them less, kept them out of court, earning him less but building a clientele.
He married Grace, who had spied him through a window while shaving. She was a teacher at the Clark School of the Deaf, which Coolidge in his later years raised $2 million to endow, and created a cause to which Grace gave himself after his death. Shlaes traces his political career from city and state legislator positions to his governorship of Massachusetts during which he takes a strong stand against the Boston Police strike that brings him to national attention, and eventually to nomination as Vice President on the Harding ticket, with the indignities of that office, disrespected by Cabot Lodge from his own state.
Then Harding dies, and Coolidge finds himself in the White House. The bulk of the book traces that presidency. He begins with a restoration of integrity after the crony politics of Harding. He gathers people like Andrew Mellon and Charles Evans Hughes around him. He consistently balances budgets, cuts taxes and expenditures, and increases revenues and surpluses. He wins election in his own right, probably saying less than any other presidential candidate. Often, he presided through the veto and even pioneered the pocket veto, which was upheld in court. He also presided over an incredible economic boom, highway construction, the Lindbergh flight. He resists veterans bonuses which he believed the states should pay. When floods ravage Vermont, he resists flood control legislation because of how it would bloat federal budgets, which he was able to hold to a mere $3 billion per year.
Shlaes makes us aware of how tough the presidency is on the occupants of the office. It broke the health of Wilson, Harding died, and Coolidge also was broken in health by the office, dying within four years. He suffered the loss of a son, Calvin, during his tenure. His marriage was strained. His last years provided a measure of restoration, even though his relationship with Hoover was always tense.
Coolidge, like some others, served to restore the dignity of the office when his predecessor had jeopardized the stature of the office. That is a particular kind of greatness, not the greatness of a war president, but nevertheless important to the republic. Shlaes helps us appreciate the important role men like Coolidge have played in our history.