Coolidge – Amity Shlaes
If you’re a non-fiction enthusiast, I’ll bet you’re a sucker for biographies. I certainly am. But increasingly I’m dubious of the sweeping pop heroic biographies gracing bookstore windows each Fall and Spring. They seem less useful than studying a specific period or event. In examining a life, a tendency arises for both author and reader to psychologize origins and extrapolate those threads through all deeds to come for the sake of narrative. The formative experiences influence and explain all. (We chide Freud, but gee whiz, he’s ground zero for such approaches, still pervasive today.) It’s the rare biographer who succeeds in melding historic/situational import with personal narrative and even deep thematic structure (and, let us not forget, accuracy). Maybe today’s best in-progress example is Robert Caro’s now monolithic study of Lyndon Johnson, or more specifically, the study of US executive power in the modern era.
So, in comes Amity Shlaes’ new biography on Calvin Coolidge. Which seems determined to do two things: raise Coolidge up as a champion of executive austerity and restraint; and two, use that narrative to contrast today’s federal budget blatherings. Shlaes has made a name for herself both as a writer and right-leaning pundit, and early reviews of Coolidge certainly glom on to a very stark fact—she sees Coolidge as a hero: “Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.”
Passivism as economic policy is at a premium these days. We have technocrats, autocrats and academics aplenty, armed with theories about how to “pull this lever and the economy will do this”, “pull that lever and the economy will do that.” At times in the book, one senses Coolidge had a preternatural sense the global economy was far too complex and nonlinear to be manipulated in this mechanistic way, that the simple recognition of that fact was reason enough to preserve state and personal liberty in favor of federal manglings. But “do nothing” is not nearly as strong, nor as populist, a platform as “do something.” That’s why—no matter which side of the aisle you reside—your politician of choice is going to promise to take action, fix something, do something and not—for heaven’s sake!—just stand by. Expedience! We shall be bold! Unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
Coolidge has always been something of an oddity to twentieth century presidents. Lacking Teddy’s grandiosity or even Wilson’s ambitions, Coolidge is mostly described as a boring accountant and budget engineer. At best, he’s “enigmatic.” Even his story is a fairly archetypal one for presidents: a lawyer, then governor, then vice president (save the untimely death of Harding as path to the presidency). Coolidge lives on as prim foil for the go-go Gatsby ‘20s; the picture perfect cover boy for Max Weber’s protestant/puritan work ethic and debt repulsion. Some of his only real character dynamism involves transformation gradually from what today we’d call liberal into something closer to conservatism. But make no mistake, Coolidge’s convicted milquetoast leadership—his teeth-gritted inaction, his insufferable poise—had ideological purpose behind it: fiscal restraint, limited government. This was no Mario Monti technocrat.
And that’s what makes Shlaes’ heroic biography of Coolidge so strange. Why champion a hero, when the common thread of her vision is not the person, but the deeds (or lack thereof)? Isn’t the hero of the Coolidge presidency the dynamism of the economy itself? A better, if perhaps less commercially viable alternative (heroic biographies are a big business among bookworms) would be to write an economic/political history of foundations of the roaring ‘20s—with Coolidge as a main player. This seems apt and continuous with Shlaes’ earlier work. As a book, Coolidge should be viewed most accurately as a prequel to her seminal The Forgotten Man—her case for the New Deal as raw deal for the US economy. In recent writings, Shlaes seems most interested in explaining why the roaring ‘20s didn’t have to be a precursor for the Depression. I’d deign to say, Coolidge himself would agree.
Nevertheless, those keenly interested in today’s sequester politics will find this an engaging review of history and reflection on today’s world, tautly composed and full of verve. Much more than we can often say of Coolidge himself.