The top-hatted Calvin Coolidge who gazes out at readers from the cover of Amity Shlaes’ engrossing new biography seems different from the caricature of the dry, parsimonious New Englander who is usually passed over on the historian’s way to Herbert Hoover’s crash and FDR’s New Deal. Shlaes wants us to see a determined, even-tempered man: Note the neatly horizontal line of the mouth, balanced by wide-open eyes that seem to bounce with life.
In short, there is more to silent Cal — as he was nicknamed in college — if you meet him eye-to-eye.
Of course small-government conservatives embrace Coolidge, who left office in 1929 amid a booming economy and with a federal budget smaller than when he became president in 1923, in the wake of scandals that rocked the Harding administration. But you don’t have to be a Republican to admire Coolidge, a man of extraordinary integrity and discipline. Indeed, he appeals to the full range of the political spectrum — at least to those searching for a way to force government to live within its means while fostering prosperity for the population at large.
Coolidge’s fiscal principles, Shlaes shows, developed out of hard-won success in the austere “snowbound” world of 19th-century New England, in which a sickly young man worked hard and truly understood the value of a dollar. Even if we cannot return to that world (who would want to?), its driving energy, based on thrift, provides a useful perspective on our more permissive and tolerant times.
Today, when the Michigan Legislature has recently voted to establish a right-to-work state, Gov. Coolidge’s stand against the 1919 Boston police strike and his willingness to take on Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor cast his notions of the public good in prominent relief. This biography seeks to turn political discussion back to ideas of self-sufficiency and self-containment, which critics of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the New Frontier have longed to revive. Whether or not Coolidge’s example can now be emulated, his biographer has provided a vivid example of what success and stability meant in an era when a president subsumed himself in the cares of office and paid scant attention to his public persona.
Carl Rollyson is the author of “American Biography” and “American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.”