Whenever Americans are asked to rate U.S. Presidents, they almost always crown Reagan, Lincoln, Clinton, and Washington as the clear victors. No argument here; these men served their country well and shaped our republic for years to come. They earned their popularity.
However, there is one man who is often ignored by the Gallup ratings, and sadly enough, by most Americans. But he is not ignored by historian and economist Amity Shlaes. She brings President Coolidge back in her latest, Coolidge, making him a very relevant president due to today’s rising national debt, unfair taxation, and massive government spending. Shlaes captures best in Coolidge. She grabs the readers’ attention by allowing Coolidge’s benevolent record speak for itself, literally. Coolidge was too shy for a politician.
Shlaes describes Coolidge’s rise in politics as anything but expected. A New England native, a Vermonter from rural Plymouth Notch, Coolidge had a surprising rise through the political ranks. His weak academic performance in Amherst,nasal and often straightforward speeches that promised little to his constituents compiled with his often awkward quiet mannerism, made him an unlikely successful statesman. In fact, his rise from vice president to president shocked many, most importantly his arch nemesis Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Senator Lodge repudiated Coolidge for most of his presidency and undermined him because of his western Massachusetts background. Many like Lodge believed Coolidge was too much of a bystander for Washington.
Coolidge hit back. His relentless conviction for public service, climbing from mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, to president, made Coolidge stand out especially from his corrupt former boss, Warren Harding. Coolidge focused on the public good of all instead of his predecessor’s individual political interests which ended up costing him his entire legacy through scandals like the Teapot Dome. It’s that willingness to serve others that separates him from many presidents and countless current politicians. Because Coolidge stood by principles, not for mere ideology, but for the betterment of the country. Nevertheless, Coolidge was a politician. He maneuvered on issues like immigration with the Comprehensive Immigration Act of 1924 for political gain even though he embraced pro-immigrant sentiment. In fact, he called the exclusion of Japanese immigrants, “unnecessary and deplorable.”
But he was remarkable consistent on his views toward taxation and government spending. He stood for low taxes because people were overtaxed, low deficits through spending cuts due to the ramped national debt, and normalcy as he called it, to oust violent anarchist labor activists.
President Coolidge took the presidency as a duty to all. Humility was Coolidge’s strongest suit. He realized that devotion to public service requires an individual to set self-ambition to the side and prioritize the concerns of others. As Coolidge once said, “We draw our Presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people.” As popular as he was, he promulgated his humility by not running for another term in 1928. That humility rang true in most of his speeches. President Coolidge spoke very little to the American people. “Silent Cal” spoke as little as 298 words for receiving the National Institute of Social Sciences gold medal award for arbitrating and ending the Boston police strike. His reward was essential to his career. Yet, Coolidge had no intent to speak for long. His speech, titled, “Law and Order,” emulated his key beliefs and his favorite communication skills, brevity.
However, his speech as President of the State Senate of Massachusetts, sounded more concise with a 40 word speech, believe it or not. He advocated to plainly, “Conserve the fine foundations of our institutions.”
Many in Washington could learn from Coolidge’s humility. Our country would benefit by replacing self-centered divisive speeches for short and thoughtful approaches to public policy. After all, Coolidge may have spoken little, but he unified the country behind his agenda working together with Democrats and fostering prosperity to all Americans.
Shlaes details Coolidge’s success. For example, Coolidge pushed to lower taxes for all Americans. He minimized the rate on the top earners to 25 percent lower than President Reagan’s 28, and 1.5 percent to the poorest Americans. He did all this without even raising the deficit and by increasing public revenues. He met with his installed Budget Bureau Director General Lord to cut spending on a daily basis. They cut in many different ways by reforming veterans’ pensions shaving off 13 percent of the program, $900 million from a $1.4 million flood relief, and many others. But the most telling piece of evidence is the major decline of federal government employees. The number plummeted from 66,290 in 1923 to 59,800 in 1927. He tops that of with 3.2 percent unemployment rate.
Conservatives like myself admire the fact that Coolidge left office with a smaller federal government than he inherited. Not many presidents can put that on their resumé. But that was his style, he spoke and delivered. That’s leadership, and that’s something to admire. While liberals will disagree with Coolidge’s policies, Coolidge sets an example higher than just good politics. He sets an example for all politicians to live up to what they believe and to, hopefully, serve the public good or the multiplicity of interests as the Founding Fathers believed.
That’s the platform our country needs and that’s the message Americans yearned for in 1928, and arguably so, a winning message for 2016.
Alex Uzarowicz | Knox College | @AUzarowicz