He used 20th-century methods to promote a 19th-century vision

Review Biography

February 11, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to The Sun

Calvin Coolidge

David Greenberg

Times Books / 202 pages / $20

In 1924, Bruce Barton, the legendary public relations man, told a colleague, "We might as well recognize, frankly, that we have nothing to sell but Calvin Coolidge."

Barton had few problems sending back to the White House the man who looked like he had been weaned on a pickle and "could be silent in five languages." In the Roaring Twenties, after all, policies promoting low taxes, speculation and a small, business-friendly government "seemed the essence of wisdom."

But with the Great Depression, observes David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, Coolidge quickly became a dinosaur, lampooned in Nathanael West's novel A Cool Million as the cliche-spouting ex-president Shagpoke Whipple. When Coolidge died in 1933, Dorothy Parker asked, "How could they tell?" But in the 1980s, the man with "a genius for inactivity" made a comeback. President Ronald Reagan put Coolidge's portrait in the Cabinet room. "If he did nothing," the Great Communicator opined, "maybe that's the answer for the federal government."

In Calvin Coolidge, the 23rd volume in the American Presidents Series (under the general editorship of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), Greenberg provides a brief and bracing re-examination of the 30th president of the United States. Coolidge's record, he argues, was "neither substantial nor enduring." He is best understood as a transitional figure who used 20th-century methods to promote 19th-century values - and 19th-century nostrums to calm the anxieties and displacements of an urban, industrial society.

Greenberg is careful not to flail at Coolidge for failing to be clairvoyant. Beneath the irrational exuberance on Wall Street, he demonstrates, lay structural weaknesses in the economy that should have commanded the president's attention. The housing market, construction, and sales of automobiles, appliances and other durable goods began to soften in the second half of the 1920s. A massive maldistribution of wealth, which left half of Americans near subsistence, William Foster and Waddill Catchings pointed out in 1927, threatened to make the economy a "business without a buyer."

Coolidge did not look beyond the present. In rising wages and falling unemployment, inflation and interest rates he found confirmation of orthodox economic policies. Coolidge did little or nothing to rein in margin trading on stocks, the loose-money policies of the Federal Reserve or the imbalance in global trade and credit. He vetoed a bill to stabilize farm prices and opposed government-constructed dams and factories to bring hydroelectric power to citizens of the Tennessee Valley. After the Mississippi River flooded in 1927 - the nation's worst natural disaster until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 - Coolidge reluctantly agreed to assist, provided that local government and property owners bore most of the costs. The president actually wanted to wait, Will Rogers wrote, with uncharacteristic anger, "in the hope that those needing relief will perhaps have conveniently died in the meantime."

Despite Coolidge's prudence, passivity and ideological inflexibility, Greenberg maintains, he was the first president to make innovative use of public relations, radio and newsreels. "Silent Cal," in fact, was selected "best orator" at Amherst College - and worked hard to shape his public image. "I think the American people want a solemn ass as president," he told Ethel Barrymore, "and I think I'll go along with them." He held 520 press conferences during his six years as president, broadcast major addresses on radio and was never too busy to be photographed, even if it meant donning a cowboy outfit or an Indian headdress. With perhaps a soup?on of hyperbole, Greenberg concludes that Coolidge laid "the foundation of a modern presidential style," leading directly to Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chats."

In Coolidge, Americans celebrated the virtues they found in Charles Lindbergh, the iconic figure of the 1920s: modesty, taciturnity, integrity and self-reliance. After the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome scandals, Greenberg implies, Americans eagerly embraced an accidental president who said to himself "I think I can swing it" and prepared cheese sandwiches for his bodyguard. According to Walter Lippmann, Coolidge offered Americans "a Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences."

But in the end, Coolidge remains an enigma. "No man of his station," wrote H.L. Mencken, "ever talked about himself less." No one really knows why Coolidge chose not to run in 1928. Or how much the death of Calvin Jr. reinforced his desire "to be relieved of the pretensions and delusions of public life." After he left office, Coolidge stayed out of politics. He lived simply, in Northampton, Mass., refusing to cash in on his celebrity through product endorsements. Coolidge returned to Washington only once, in 1929, to celebrate the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

Coolidge was the last president to walk away from power, willingly. That decision and his scorn for self-revelation, marked him, in his own time, as an anachronism. They remain his most elusive - and most endearing - qualities.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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