Credit Ronald Reagan, credit Paul Johnson, and now, credit Amity Shlaes. There are other voices as well who have weighed in. The conventional history was given a shake-up. The times and the details were re-examined, and the judgment has been changed.
Franklin D. Roosevelt captured history for a generation or two. Without a doubt, Roosevelt was a very powerful, gifted, and forceful leader. I grew up loving him and then came to loath him. I am somewhere in between now. There has rarely been a politician with the political saavy, the people skills, the speaking gifts, and the timing of FDR. His voice and radio were just the right combination. His pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new powers and governmental venues were made to order during the Great Depression. His leadership during World War II was bold. None of this is said to endorse or agree with all that he did, but he was a political force for his time and for a generation to follow. Every President since FDR is held up to his patterns and programs. No President’s first hundred days in office match that of Roosevelt.
No wonder then that the historians, and by extension, the history textbooks, and by application, the classroom history teachers touted a similar line. FDR got the United States out of the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II. Before Roosevelt, the United States suffered under a series of weak, ineffectual Republicans. Warren G. Harding’s short lived Presidency was characterized by scandals, by poor linguistic skills, and by incompetence. It was the 1920s, the age of the Flappers and of Prohibition. Harding was a politically mediocre pawn who did little while serving as President. Then came Calvin Coolidge. Silent Cal. The object of jokes, a lazy man, a man out of touch with political realities while content to let ruthless businessmen fuel the fires that led to the Stock Market Crash. Coolidge was the model of how little would be done if conservatives ran the country. Coolidge was followed by Hoover, whose response to the Great Depression was to focus on “rugged individualism.” But thankfully, FDR came along and saved the country, capitalism, democracy, the world, and the forgotten, common man.
The problem with the simplification is its inaccuracy. Amity Shlaes’ brilliant book Coolidge does a powerful job of recasting the life and work of Calvin Coolidge. He was a man of good solid personal principles. His personal principles and code of ethics and Christian faith dominated his political life and actions as well. He was a serious reader and thinker. He wrote his own speeches and thought his own thoughts. He was stubborn and generally unrelenting when it came to issues that mattered to him. Even though he spent most of his working life in politics, politics never seemed to capture his being. Being President was just what he did because that was the job he had.
I started reading this book last year. I read about the first third of it and then put it aside. There was no problem with reading about the early years of Coolidge’s life. But there were other books. Coolidge the book, like the President, got somehow overlooked for a time. A few weeks back, I picked it up one night and started reading from it again. Admittedly, I was just beginning to get into the most interesting part. Coolidge was becoming a nationally known figure due to his strong stand in the Boston Police Strike. His statement “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”
From those events, Coolidge became a Presidential candidate. Although he did little to promote his candidacy, he was enough of a force to win the Vice Presidential nomination at the 1920 Republican convention. Running as VP with Warren G. Harding, Coolidge was elected. He was the first Vice President to attend cabinet meetings. As VP, his role and activities were limited until Harding died.
Coolidge stepped into the Presidency in August of 1923. Working with some brilliant cabinet members, Coolidge began a mission to control and reduce the budget and national debt. This part of the book is phenomenal. Anyone wanting to serve in politics should read it repeatedly and, we might say, prayerfully. I don’t think the kind of economy that Coolidge practiced would be possible now, but the general sense, the dedication, the nit-pickiness, of cutting spending, reducing government, and being willing to lose on principle is needed more than ever.
This book is an important historical revision. But it needs to go beyond the history classroom. Congress and the President need to read this book, especially those chapters on Coolidge’s spending cuts, and repent. I don’t expect that to happen. But the message can be trumpeted in the classrooms, in discussions, and in blogs.
This book will make the 2014 list of best books of the year. Amity Shlaes’ previous book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression is also a valuable study.