Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Good old Calvin Coolidge, a hero for a simpler time; Character and minimizing government intrusion bring a scorned 'do-nothing' progressive to the fore.

Nineteen ninety-eight was a very good year for the president. President Calvin Coolidge, that is. Routinely disparaged in the past, he is getting new-found respect. He was treated respectfully in two 1998 hardcover biographies: "The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge" by Robert H. Ferrell (University Press of Kansas, 244 pages, $29.95), and "Coolidge: An American Enigma" by Robert Sobel (Regnery, 462 pages, $34.95).

Plus there was a 1998 hardcover collection of 12 long essays based on papers delivered at a 1995 Library of Congress symposium on Coolidge: "Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s" edited by John Earl Haynes (Library of Congress, 329 pages, $50). The essays were generally positive.

Then there was the publication of 20 largely pro-Coolidge essays based on papers and remarks at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Library last July: "Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence." It was published as the Fall 1998 issue of "The New England Journal of History" (124 pages, unpriced).

Then there is "Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream." It is a novel written by John Derbyshire. Published as a hardcover in 1996, a quality paperback version came out in 1997 (St. Martin's Griffin, 273 pages, $11.95). The protagonist is a Chinese immigrant to the contemporary United States who worships Coolidge.

What's going on? Coolidge has never been regarded as a good or important president by historians, political scientists and political journalists. He has been ranked as below average at best, a failure at worst.

There are, I believe, two main reasons for that. One, he was a conservative, business-oriented "do-nothing" president, and most historians, political scientists and journalists are liberals who prefer activists in the White House. And two, many students of the "Coolidge era," including a few conservatives, believe Coolidge was to some degree responsible for the stock market crash and even World War II.

There are also two main reasons for the recent re-evaluation. One is nostalgia for a simpler time, less governmental presence in the average citizen's life, and a more straightforward political environment. The other reason is that "character" is back in vogue as an important - and missing - quality in the White House.

"Nobody ever questioned Coolidge's integrity," asserted Michael Dukakis at the Kennedy Library conference.

Another Democratic presidential nominee who had a high regard for Coolidge is quoted in Sobel's biography: Al Smith said on the ex-president's death, "He belonged in the class of presidents who were distinguished for character more than for heroic achievements. He was keen, kindly and entirely free from conceit, pompousness and political hokum."

As for the differences in politics and politicking then and now as an explanation for the nostalgia for Coolidge, I like what Richard Norton Smith, political biographer and presidential archivist, told the Kennedy Library conference: "Our timing is hardly coincidental. In an age when much public life is riddled by fakery - when candidates without ideas hire consultants without convictions to stage campaigns without content, Coolidge deserves reappraisal for his authenticity as much as his ideology."

No president has ever been more authentic an American. He was born on the Fourth of July in Vermont, made his name in Massachusetts politics, working up the ladder from one office to the next till he was selected for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1920, by the delegates spontaneously, after the bosses had chosen Warren Harding for presidential nominee in history's most famous smoke-filled room.

Coolidge advocates at the convention stressed that he was, Ferrell recounts, "sterling in his Americanism."

Three years later, Harding, his administration wracked by scandal and corruption, died, and Coolidge became president. He was elected in his own right in 1924 and became the most popular American president between the two Roosevelts.

Almost every positive stereotype of the old WASP-y Yankee fits Coolidge. Hardworking, forthright, unextravagant in speech, garb, consumption and behavior, honest to a fault, a heritage of rural communities, small farms and small businesses, local rule and discipline-inducing harsh winters. Strong for family.

His reluctance to invoke the federal government in active betterment of society was closer to 18th century Republican (Jeffersonian) thought than 20th.

Novelist Derbyshire looks further, much further, back through the centuries for the wellsprings of Coolidge-ism.

The main character in "Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream" is Chia, a former Red Guard who escapes to America and becomes a banker in New York. He explains Coolidge to his wife thusly: "The man was a Confucian. Human beings naturally good. Social harmony through the moral perfection of self. Serve the people. Not much need for laws if the leaders give a good example."

The English historian Paul Johnson told the Library of Congress symposium that he thought of the Coolidge era as America's "last Arcadia." The dictionary defines Arcadia as "Figuratively any region of simple pleasure, rustic innocence and untroubled quiet."

Nostalgia involves exaggeration at times, but Johnson's description is apt. In the 1920s, Americans had prosperity and peace. The Holy Grail of American presidents.

As to the former, Americans at every level of income and wealth enjoyed unprecedented comfort. The rich did better than the poor, laboring class and middle class, but compared to their cohorts of the past, the non-rich lived greatly improved lives. (And, as Kennedy Library historian Sheldon Stern points out, families earning under $5,000 who paid 15.4 percent in federal income taxes in 1920, paid only 0.4 percent by 1929.)

As for peace, the Coolidge administration successfully negotiated a treaty with 61 other nations renouncing war as a national policy. Coolidge's secretary of state, Frank Kellogg, won the Nobel Prize for that.

Arcadia, alas, was not forever. Six months after Coolidge left the White House in 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression, with soaring unemployment and poverty, ensued.

Any number of economic historians have blamed the crash and its effects on Harding-Coolidge policies of allowing big business and big finance to go recklessly unregulated.

"Coolidge's failure was the failure of a president who does not look ahead," a biographer of a generation ago wrote.

There were people in the 1920s who prophesied economic trouble ahead. But none who believed the American people desired the actions that might have headed them off. The journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1928: "Surely no one will write of those years since 1923 that an aggressive president altered the destiny of the Republic. Yet it is an important fact that no one will write of those same years that the Republic wished to have its destiny altered."

So, as Ferrell writes, "The question must be how much a political leader can go against the spirit and factual necessities of his time." Not much.

Kellogg's treaty did not prevent war. It was, writes Sobel, "idealistic and perhaps utopian." But again who could have anticipated the future? Public officials of goodwill and intelligence in the 1920s, idealistic or not, could only look back to the horrors of 1914-1918, wrought by realists, and seek peaceful ways to avoid a recurrence.

Like all presidents, Calvin Coolidge was the product of his time and its antecedents, and he should be judged on that basis, as it appears he is now, finally, being.

Theo Lippman Jr. is the author of "The Squire of Warm Springs," a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, among other political works. He retired in 1995 after 30 years as a Sun editorial writer. He wrote biographies of Sens. Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°