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Calvin Coolidge: The 30th President, 1923-1929 (American Presidents)by David Greenberg
Synopses & Reviews
The austere president who presided over the Roaring Twenties and whose conservatism masked an innovative approach to national leadership
He was known as "Silent Cal." Buttoned up and tight-lipped, Calvin Coolidge seemed out of place as the leader of a nation plunging headlong into the modern era. His six years in office were a time of flappers, speakeasies, and a stock market boom, but his focus was on cutting taxes, balancing the federal budget, and promoting corporate productivity. "The chief business of the American people is business," he famously said.
But there is more to Coolidge than the stern capitalist scold. He was the progenitor of a conservatism that would flourish later in the century and a true innovator in the use of public relations and media. Coolidge worked with the top PR men of his day and seized on the rising technologies of newsreels and radio to bring the presidency into the lives of ordinary Americans--a path that led directly to FDR's "fireside chats" and the expert use of television by Kennedy and Reagan. At a time of great upheaval, Coolidge embodied the ambivalence that many of his countrymen felt. America kept "cool with Coolidge," and he returned the favor.
"As America's 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, popularly known as 'Silent Cal,' had a record that 'was neither substantial nor enduring'; still, Ronald Reagan considered him 'one of our most underrated presidents,' and historian and author Greenberg (Nixon's Shadow) sets to find out why in a precise and objective record of Coolidge's long political career. If Coolidge's commitment to minimalist government in turn minimized his contributions to the nation, he was regarded well during his two terms, probably because of 'robust economic productivity' and his prescient use of growing public relations infrastructure, utilizing radio, film and photography to run a front-porch campaign 'long before the term "photo op" was coined.' Coolidge's personal commitment to austerity allowed him to'pare spending in almost every government department' and cut taxes four times; by the 'end of his second term, most Americans paid no federal income tax at all.' Though Black Thursday devastated the stock market on his watch in 1929, at the end of his presidency 'standard accounts affix some blame to his policies,' but 'even Coolidge's harshest critics agree that the roots of the Depression lie deeper than any policies of one man.' Greenberg's history takes readers ably but unsurprisingly from rustic, post-Civil War Vermont to, in Coolidge's words, 'a new era to which I do not belong,' showing along the way how his personality and politics helped him regain relevancy in political struggles yet to come." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Calvin Coolidge didn't get a lot of respect while he was in the White House, and his reputation only suffered after he left office. To be sure, Coolidge's 1924 election — following his ascent to the presidency upon the death the previous year of Warren G. Harding — was impressive, but the victory said less about the Republican incumbent than about the ebullient condition of the economy and the disarray... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of the Democrats. Pundits made regular sport of Coolidge. 'His ideal day,' H.L. Mencken wrote, 'is one on which nothing whatever happens.' Walter Lippmann was being kind when he characterized Coolidge's philosophy as 'Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.' Coolidge's terseness became legendary. He could be 'silent in five languages,' a contemporary asserted. A favorite joke had a pretty young woman approaching the president to explain that she had bet a friend she could make him say more than two words. 'You lose,' Coolidge replied. Alice Roosevelt Longworth said he looked as though he'd been 'weaned on a pickle.' When Dorothy Parker heard in 1933 that Coolidge had just died, she archly inquired, 'How could they tell?' Historians weren't any kinder. The stock market crashed just months after Coolidge left office, triggering the Great Depression, and historians blamed him for ignoring structural weaknesses in the economy. Most judged his signature silence woefully inappropriate as a response to rising intolerance, which included the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, culminating in a march by some 40,000 of the white-robed bigots past the White House in August 1925. Yet Ronald Reagan admired Coolidge and hung his portrait in the Cabinet Room. As well he might have, in the view of David Greenberg, who argues that Coolidge was a kind of proto-Reagan. Coolidge cut taxes repeatedly, slashed federal programs and adopted an uncompromising stance against striking government workers. More surprisingly, Greenberg adds, Coolidge was, if not a Great Communicator, at least a pretty darn good one, mastering radio in much the same way Reagan mastered television. Greenberg's brisk, engaging volume is the latest in a series of short biographies of the presidents edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The series aims to be comprehensively egalitarian; William Henry Harrison, who served one uneventful month, will receive his 50,000 words, the same as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lasted 12 tumultuous years. Coolidge lands somewhere mid-spectrum in both time in office and significance. His accomplishments as president were as modest as his ambitions, consisting chiefly of downsizing the federal government and avoiding entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. His leadership style was passive to the point of willful paralysis. 'If you keep dead still,' he counseled Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, 'they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.' Coolidge liked to think of himself as a practitioner of laissez faire. In fact, he might better have called himself an advocate of laissez le bon temps roulez (if French had not been one of the languages in which he was silent). The Roaring Twenties were the decade of Prohibition, which didn't prevent most of those who wanted their booze from getting it. Coolidge, a son of Plymouth Notch, Vt., didn't indulge in alcohol, but he did indulge the business culture of the decade in its acquisitive ways. He supported an increase in the tariff to protect the domestic market and fatten corporate profits, and he famously declared that 'the chief business of the American people is business.' Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money and a belief that the self-proclaimed 'New Era' really was new. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bursting, but that didn't prevent hard feelings. 'Nero fiddled,' Mencken said, 'but Coolidge only snored.' Greenberg, who teaches history and media studies at Rutgers, has written previously on perceptions of Richard M. Nixon. His comparison of Coolidge with Reagan is apt as far as it goes (even if Greenberg overrates Coolidge's communication skills). But another parallel springs as readily to mind. Coolidge made a habit of bestowing nicknames on those around him; his tax cuts particularly benefited the rich; the hottest issue of his presidency was immigration (Coolidge in 1924 signed the most sweeping immigration reform in American history, drastically curtailing legal entry into the United States); flooding in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Mississippi required a major relief effort and prompted angry criticism of Washington's halfhearted response. But unlike George W. Bush, Coolidge left office after a single full term. 'I do not choose to run,' he said simply, and walked away. Considering how things have been going recently, Bush may wish he had followed Silent Cal's lead on this point, too. H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson." Reviewed by H.W. Brands, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
At a time of great upheaval, Coolidge embodied the ambivalence that many of his countrymen felt. America kept "cool with Coolidge," and he returned the favor.
About the Author
David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate, and the author of the prizewinning Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. A former acting editor of The New Republic, he has written for many scholarly and popular publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He lives in New York City.
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