Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Calvin Coolidge: Prophet To Today's Right

Reviewing "Coolidge," a biography on the 30th U.S. President by Amity Shlaes, Jacob Heilbrunn notes in the Sunday New York Times Book Review that Calvin Coolidge (left), has been resurrected as a "prophet on the right" by George Will, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, among others. "Silent Cal" was noted for his opposition to progressive taxation, labor rights and financial regulation–and for his support of supply-side economics. Heilbrunn, though, does not share the conservative Shlaes' admiration for her subject and is particularly critical of her contention that Coolidge had no responsibility for the Depression. He notes that Coolidge, Reagan and George W. Bush all supported similar policies that had negative economic impacts. One might also note that these are the same disastrous policies promoted by today's conservative Coolidge fans:

...No, Coolidge was not single-handedly culpable for the economic calamity of the 1930s. But neither can he be safely extracted from the ruin that followed his presidency. Quite the contrary. Coolidge was the pre-­eminent cheerleader for the economic nostrums that led to the crash. His opposition to regulation allowed Wall Street and the banks to engage in rampant speculation and insider trading, practices that were not curbed until Joseph Kennedy was appointed head of the new Securities and Exchange Commission by Franklin Roose­velt to ban the very practices he himself had employed. So deep was Coolidge’s antipathy to any form of government action that he even viewed his gifted secretary of commerce and successor Herbert Hoover with a measure of contempt, calling him the “wonder boy” because he fell into the progressive Republican camp.

With yet another tribute about to appear — “Why Coolidge Matters,” by the former Claremont Institute fellow Charles C. Johnson, will be published in March — Coolidge will surely continue to enjoy a comeback on the right. Yet his actual record shows that he was an extraordinarily blinkered and foolish and complacent leader, no less than George W. Bush before the stock market plummeted in 2008. The bogus nostrums that Coolidge touted have directly led either to enormous deficits during the Reagan era or to outright catastrophe during the Bush era. Shlaes never stops to ponder the abundant literature chafing at and exposing the conformity and avarice of the Roaring Twenties, but the prosperity offered by Calvinism has always proved as elusive as the promise of the green light that Jay Gatsby watches at the end of Daisy’s dock. Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.


Michael The Molar Maven said...

A little historical perspective from my memory bank before I send this information to my brain's recycle bin: Coolidge was actually born on The Fourth of July (1872), and became out 30th president (if you count Grover Cleveland twice; 29th if you don't). He succeeded to the presidency in 1923 upon the death of his predecessor, Warren Harding, under whom he served as vice-president (obviously!). He ran on his own in 1924 with the motto, "Business as usual"; after all, this was "The Roaring Twenties". (British-style punctuation.) According to Harry S. Truman (who really should not have placed a "." after the "S", since it didn't stand for anything; he had no full middle name), "Will Rogers put it another way: 'Keep Cool with Coolidge and Do Nothing'". Coolidge won because of a severe, fatal split at the democratic convention between the supporters of William G. McAdoo and Alfred E. Smith. It took 103 ballots before the party decided upon a compromise candidate, John W. Davis. Coolidge won by a landslide. Coolidge actually represented the conservative tendency to look back, longing for "the good old days". Eventually this political philosophy has to fail as those leaders who long for the past have difficulty anticipating the future. Coolidge was just such an example. However, it was his successor, Herbert Hoover, who has been given much of the blame for The Depression. But in reality, the twenties were a time of prosperity. It is counter to human nature to "rock the boat" when things are going well. Does this sound familiar? (Some of this information was paraphrased fron the second volume of The Memoirs of Harry S. Truman called, YEARS OF TRIAL AND HOPE.)

Jeff Tone said...

Thanks for the historical perspective. Actually, the entire Coolidge era and his misguided fiscal policies sound familiar.