‘Coolidge’: new biography of a parsimonious president
Amity Shlaes’ “Coolidge,” a new biography of the 30th U.S. President, tells the story of the debt-averse chief executive, but the narrative bogs down with excessive detail.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Amity Shlaes
Harper, 565 pp., $35
“Thrift, to him, is the queen of all virtues,” H.L. Mencken wrote mockingly of President Calvin Coolidge. “He respects money in each and every one of its beautiful forms: pennies, nickels, dimes ... ”
Coolidge was the skinflint president. In one speech he labeled himself: “I am for economy. After that I am for more economy.”
In the 1920s Americans worried about the debt piled up from World War I. Coolidge tackled it. Under him, the budget was in surplus, the federal debt fell by a quarter and the top rate of income tax was cut by more than a half, to 25 percent — lower than it has been since. All the while, the economy boomed. The “Roaring Twenties” ended in depression, but his years, 1923-1929, were good.
Farmers produced too much, and in 1927 Congress passed the first comprehensive price-support bill. Coolidge vetoed it. He had grown up on a farm in Vermont and to him, price supports were contrary to economic law. Herbert Hoover, his secretary of commerce, wanted to build dams. Coolidge wanted to cut the budget.
Coolidge is not rated highly by most historians, but something is to be said for a president who can reduce the national debt. Not one of them has done it since. And in Amity Shlaes, a former member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, he has a sympathetic biographer.
Shlaes is a fine researcher, and has won prizes for her columns at Bloomberg News. But her organization of the life of Coolidge is largely by chronology: this happened, and then that. The effect is a swirl of detail with only momentary focus.
On page 345, for example, we learn that Coolidge has agreed to reduce the tariff on paintbrush handles and live quail, that he has placated the cotton growers after vetoing the farm bill, that he has awarded a trophy to a Marine pilot who flew from San Diego to Washington, D.C., and that the first lady, Grace, has attended the dedication of a chapel at their son’s alma mater and received roses dropped from an airplane. We learn that the chapel’s bell was cast in England and has copper from Lord Nelson’s ship at Trafalgar, that the Mississippi flood has receded, that the aurora borealis has interfered with radio communication and that there has been a visit by Queen Marie of Romania — and all this in two paragraphs.
Sometimes a big thing comes along, and there is clarity for a while. Then it’s back to the strobe light of detail: this happened, then that. Shlaes is an economic conservative, and puts in the things a conservative would want to know. But they are among all the other things — Coolidge’s yacht, his mortgage, his father, his dog.
She also leaves some big things out. Coolidge’s reign was the high time of liquor prohibition, a major issue of politics, culture and crime. All she says of it is that it allowed Coolidge to save money by omitting wine at state dinners.
Coolidge was not exciting, to be sure; they called him Silent Cal. But he deserves a more compelling narrative than this.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.