Rebirth of Cool Cal

By Miller, John J. | Reason, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Rebirth of Cool Cal


Miller, John J., Reason


"I believe I can swing it," dead-panned Calvin Coolidge 75 years ago, on the night that he was sworn in as president, following the sudden death of Warren Harding. Since then, however, most historians have frowned on the Republican. Several times over the last half-century, the father - son duo Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have asked their fellow professors to rank America's chief executives. These academics always deem Coolidge "below average" - in other words, they think he's about as accomplished as the dithering Millard Fillmore. Cool Cal didn't do much better in a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 "distinguished historians"; they placed him immediately behind Jimmy Carter. In the 1997 Ridings-McIver survey of historians and former politicians, Coolidge came in at number 33, right below Richard Nixon.

The man deserves better. He is America's most underappreciated president, a tax-cutting, budget-slashing politician whose very name became synonymous with the fast-growing 1920s economy: "Coolidge Prosperity," they called it. Coolidge stood defiantly as an anti-Progressive between two activist eras, the first led by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the second by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That's the real reason so many modern academics dislike him: Coolidge didn't participate in the onward march of an ever-growing government. In fact, he actively resisted it. "The people cannot look to legislation generally for success," he said in one of his most famous speeches. "Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil."

It's an anachronism to call Coolidge America's first libertarian president; it's also not an apt label for a politician who favored trade barriers and cut immigration levels. But perhaps this Republican comes close enough for government work. He's certainly the kind of leader the United States could use today. And now, after decades of taking partisan political knocks from New Deal court historians such as the Schlesingers, he has started to receive a much-needed reassessment in two important and level-headed books, Robert Sobel's Coolidge: An American Enigma and Robert H. Ferrell's The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Sobel offers a traditional biography of an often inscrutable man; Ferrell focuses almost exclusively on Coolidge's presidential administration. Both efforts are welcome.

The Coolidge years marked a transitional time for the United States, with technological advances improving the lives of ordinary citizens in dramatic ways. While he was president, automobile registrations tripled and phone ownership grew rapidly. The first suburbs appeared, and skyscrapers began to dot the urban landscape. Motion pictures suddenly played sound; they became known as the "talkies," and theater attendance skyrocketed. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean, exciting imaginations everywhere.

Coolidge himself seemed to stand on the cusp of the modern era, a mixture of old and new. He was the last president who never flew in an airplane. He didn't own a car until he left office, and even then he didn't drive it. Yet he was a radio pioneer. The new medium - it broadcast a political convention for the first time in 1924, when Coolidge was renominated by the GOP - allowed him to overcome his lifelong handicap as a crummy stump speaker. ("McCall could fill any hall in Massachusetts and Coolidge could empty it," wrote one critic, referring to Coolidge's candidacy for lieutenant governor and his ticket mate, Samuel McCall, in 1916.) His reedy voice, in fact, was ideal for the airwaves; he delivered 16 radio addresses in five years.

Although he instinctively recoiled from the glad-handing that most successful politicians thrive on - no fraternity at Amherst College would accept him when he first rushed - Coolidge embodied a very genuine kind of populism that the age of electronic media would soon destroy. He was, for example, the last president to write his own speeches or spend a significant amount of time in the traditional activity of greeting anonymous White House visitors and passers-by with a quick handshake. …

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