February 22, 2013
Calvin Coolidge, our most understated president, was also one of our most underrated presidents, syndicated columnist and bestselling author Amity Shlaes said Wednesday at The Heritage Foundation on Wednesday.
Today’s lawmakers can learn a lot from Coolidge’s approach, said Shlaes, author of a new biography of the 30th president:
If you want to know only one thing about Coolidge it is this, After those 67 months when he packed up went on the train back to New England, the federal budget was lower than before.
Coolidge–named by Heritage’s Joe Postell as “an intellectual and political forefather of modern American conservatism”–was devoted to cutting taxes and reducing spending. When Coolidge assumed office, the top marginal tax rate was 56 percent. Coolidge managed to lower the top rate to 25 percent to promote growth. Not even Ronald Reagan was able to bring the top rate that low.
He he even had a pair of living metaphors to help him:
They had lion cubs in the White House and they were a gift from South Africa. And The President always wanted to be sure that tax cuts and budget cuts went together and since the lion cubs were twins he thought that was a great way to talk about it. And he named the lion cubs Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
Coolidge, Shlaes said, was often melancholy and in need of cheering up. Once, when he was walking past the White House, a senator tried to cheer him up by pointing to the White House and saying “Look at that pretty white house. I wonder who lives in there?” To which the president responded, “Nobody does, they just come and go.”
Shlaes explains just how insightful this remark was to his temperament: “That’s the sense of respect for office. It’s more important than ‘me.’ He believed in service.”
When Coolidge ran for reelection in 1924, he won with an absolute majority despite the progressive party taking seventeen percent of the vote. Voters rewarded Coolidge for having the courage to cut taxes, cut spending, and say “no.”
While Coolidge understood that crises were needed to pass dramatic legislation, he passed up the opportunity. He worked very hard to keep the country out of crisis mode. His penchant for sniffing out drama, and avoiding it, helped build his reputation as our most taciturn president. Some journalists thought this reflected a level of stupidity, but Walter Lippman was one of the few journalists that recognized what it really meant. Shlaes quoted Lippman on Silent Cal’s silence:
“The White House is extremely sensitive to the first symptom of any desire on the part of congress or executive departments to do something. The skill with which Mr. Coolidge applies his wet blanket is technically marvelous. There has never been Mr. Coolidge’s equal in the art of deflating interest.”
You can watch the full talk here.
Do you think presidents should try to emulate Calvin Coolidge?