- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones” — Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president.
Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) was born on the Fourth of July, a coincidence that Charles C. Johnson thinks is key to understanding our 30th president, whom he calls the nation’s most underrated chief executive. In “Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President” (Encounter Books, 358 pages, notes, bibliography, index, $25.99) Johnson provides a detailed look at a man he thinks could provide answers for the nation’s problems 80 years after his death.
Johnson hasn’t penned a traditional biography of a man who probably deserves one, but rather a politically oriented look at an accidental president, like the handful of vice presidents who came to the office on the death of the president.
Think Andrew Johnson (Lincoln); Lyndon B. Johnson (Kennedy); Theodore Roosevelt (McKinley). Coolidge ascended to the presidency on the death of Warren G. Harding in 1923, won election on his own in 1924 and declined to run in 1928, when he would have been a shoo-in — and would have been blamed for the Depression, as was his successor Herbert Hoover, who had served as Harding’s and Coolidge’s commerce secretary.
Johnson says the U.S. today has a lot in common with Coolidge’s 1920s, especially what he inherited from Harding and Woodrow Wilson, a much overrated president whose policies resemble those of George W. Bush in many interventionist ways. I’m not saying that W is the racist that Wilson — the man who re-segregated the federal government and who screened “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House — was. I was pleased to see a thorough examination of Wilson, who was not only prejudiced toward blacks but managed to antagonize our WWI allies the Japanese on every occasion available to him.
Johnson tells us to Imagine a country where strikes by public-sector unions occupy the public square; where foreign policy wanders aimlessly as America disentangles itself from wars abroad and a potential civil war on its southern border; where racial and ethnic groups jostle for political influence; where a war on illicit substances leads to violence in its cities; where technology is dramatically changing how people everywhere communicate and move about—and where the educated harbor increasing contempt for the philosophic underpinnings of our Republic.
That country, the America of the 1920s, looks a lot like the America of today, Johnson says. By the way, the author ‘s photo on the dust jacket makes him look about 18, if that! He’s actually a young looking 24.
One would think, then, that the President who successfully navigated these challenges, Calvin Coolidge, might be esteemed today. Instead, Coolidge’s record is little known, the result of efforts by both the left and right to distort his legacy.
“Why Coolidge Matters” revisits the record of Coolidge, examining Coolidge’s views on governance, public-sector unions, education, race, immigration, and foreign policy. Perhaps the best takeaway of “Why Coolidge Matters” consists of what lessons Coolidge — the last president to pay down the national debt— can offer the limited-government movement in the post-industrial age.
Johnson says that it’s significant that Ronald Reagan was an admirer of Calvin Coolidge, displaying his picture in the Oval Office. Of course Reagan was mocked by the liberal media and commentators for his choice of presidents, but in a July 1981 interview with Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post, the Great Communicator said:
“Now you hear a lot of jokes about Silent Cal Coolidge, but I think the joke is on the people that make jokes because if you look at his record. he cut taxes four times. We had probably the greatest growth and prosperity that we’ve ever known. And I have taken heed of that because if he did nothing, maybe that’s the answer [for] the federal government.”
In the book’s conclusion, beginning on page 231, Johnson discusses the controversial practice of rating presidents. It’s frequently done by academics and Johnson says — and I agree with him — that “modern political science is out of its depth when studying someone whose principles it doesn’t much appreciate and often doesn’t attempt to understand.”
Johnson cites some studies: the Maranell survey of 1972 ranks Coolidge 30th out of the 34 presidents “surveyed for overall accomplishment.” The Sienna Research poll of 1994 ranked him 36th of 41, and the Schlesinger poll of 1996 ranked him 30th of 39.
In an internet search, I found a civilian, a Texan named Clayton D. (David) Strand who ranked Coolidge 13th of 37 presidents surveyed (link: http://www.cdstrand.com/areas/essays/presranks.htm ). He says this about Coolidge: “It’s hard to say what he did, other than not interfere because things were working so well, a strategy which might have benefitted many other politicians through the ages.”
Some of the things I liked about Coolidge that I discovered in Johnson’s very readable book:
> Coolidge rejected the pseudoscience of Eugenics, which was extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and, unlike Wilson, rejected the Ku Klux Klan, and supported legislation, “and sometimes federal funding”, to improve the condition of blacks, Indians, and recent immigrants.” He said to a group that included the crown prince of Sweden: “As we do not recognize any inferior races, so we do not recognize any superior races.” This was at a time when the 1924 Democratic national convention had so many KKK members in attendance that it was dubbed the “Klanbake.”
> Perhaps one reason for Coolidge’s low rating on most polls is he didn’t have a supersized ego, especially during the Roaring Twenties when tooting one’s horn the loudest was S.O.P.
> Coolidge campaigned for Hoover in 1928, but it was perfunctory, Johnson says. Coolidge called the Iowan transplanted to California “Wonder Boy”, adding about Hoover that “for six years that man has given me unsolicited advice — all of it bad.”
> “Silent Cal” Coolidge wasn’t totally silent. He held more news conferences than any previous president and was the first president to use radio to its fullest advantage, predating FDR’s “Fireside Chats.” After leaving office in 1929, his syndicated column was one of the most popular in the nation, earning him a fortune. Typical of Coolidge, after leaving the White House, he moved back to his two-family house in Massachusetts.
This is just a teaser selection: the book is crammed with information that is not widely known, because so many so-called scholars have dismissed Coolidge and his ideas out of hand.
About the author
Charles C. Johnson is an independent writer. His work has appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, City Journal, The New Criterion, Reason, Tablet Magazine, and The Claremont Review of Books, and he has been the recipient of both the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship and Eric Breindel Award at the Wall Street Journal, the Robert Novak Award at the Philips Foundation, and the Publius Fellowship at the Claremont Institute. He lives in the San Gabriel Valley with his fiancée and is presently writing a political biography of Barack Obama.