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calvin coolidge

20 october 2008

Calvin Coolidge was famously a cipher while he was alive, and hasn't attained much substance in the 75 years since his death. Tight-lipped, with a mean streak, he rose incrementally through the ranks of Massachusetts Republican politics to become state legislator, lieutenant governor, and governor. He made an innocuous vice-presidential candidate in 1920, and became President on the death of Warren Harding. With almost no national political base, he won election in his own right in 1924 largely because the nation was prosperous and at peace. He had almost no agenda except a laissez-faire economic policy, and did very little positive or energetic in his full term. But meanwhile, oddly enough, he won true popularity as the first celebrity President.

By "celebrity" I mean in the sense of "famous for being famous." Certainly there had been widely-known American Presidents before Coolidge. But they tended to have done world-historical things: to have won Revolutions, Civil Wars, or Nobel Peace Prizes. Woodrow Wilson had Fourteen Points; Coolidge barely had a point at all.

As David Greenberg shows in his volume in the Times Books American Presidents series, Coolidge became President just at the cusp of the modern media era. He was the first newsreel President and the first radio President. He invented the photo-op. Or rather, Barton, Durstine & Osborn invented the photo-op for him, because Coolidge was also the first President to employ a publicist.

Coolidge, constantly in the public eye, became sort of the Dick Loudon of the American Presidency: the Vermont straight man, repressed, buttoned-down, a bracing counterpoint to the extravagances of the Jazz Age around him. His very imperturbability, his very stick-in-the-mud pietisms, became a perverse kind of hip. Where the bloviating Harding had seemed to many just an overstuffed noisemaker, even the talking heads of the day had some respect for the acerbic, inscrutable Coolidge. No less a critic than H. L. Mencken called him (after Coolidge's death) "an extremely comfortable and even praiseworthy citizen" (158) – by contrast to Harding, whom Mencken termed "a mere hallucination."

Greenberg sees Coolidge through the lens of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, whose learning was eccentric but persistent, fixed on Calvin Coolidge as a role model. Like Coolidge, Reagan believed in tax cuts, deregulation, supply-side economics, and the rhetoric of old-fashioned small-town and rural values. Like Coolidge, Reagan was good on the radio (in fact, he grew up listening to Coolidge on the radio).

And so, much of what one thinks of Coolidge depends on what one thinks of the Reagan strand of American conservatism. If there is something to admire in Coolidge, it's the steadiness of his message (which, granted, was almost no message at all). And Coolidge has the additional virtue of being a true deficit hawk. He went along with tax cuts promoted by his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, but he insisted on spending cuts as well, and kept the budget balanced (according to Greenberg, the last President before Bill Clinton to do so).

Coolidge was an effective small-government President, but at a certain cost. Where Lincoln, Grant, and Benjamin Harrison had established the Republican tradition of Presidential support for civil rights, and even Harding had made risky speeches advocating racial equality, the best Coolidge could bring himself to do in the face of Jim Crow and an epidemic of lynchings was to claim not to be a member of the Klan. In a country and era where one party (the Democrats) were fiercely segregationist, Coolidge was the kind of friend to African-Americans who left them not needing any enemies.

Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge. New York: Times Books, 2007.