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Ed Driscoll

Interview: Amity Shlaes Discusses Coolidge (With Transcript)

February 11th, 2013 - 12:01 am

MR. DRISCOLL:  Amity, while you were researching your book, what was the biggest surprise regarding either Coolidge or the 1920s or both that you discovered?

MS. SHLAES:  How incredibly modern they were because one of the means — the cliches about Coolidge is he’s so retrograde, throwback, right, something Victorian, didn’t drive.  And he was incredibly modern.

How specifically was he modern?  He identified new technologies that could have transformative power.  Whether you’re talking to a democrat or a republican today, there always saying new technology can have transformative power and get us out of our rut, right?

And we think of, example John F. Kennedy as the president who got us out of our rut, October Sky to the space program, by inspiring us and that helped growth in all areas.

Well, Coolidge’s area was aviation.  And he followed and promoted aviation without making the federal government bigger, most of the time, but with great enthusiasm.  And one of the wonderful things on the Internet is Coolidge’s introduction of Lindbergh who was, to the Coolidges, like their own son — they had lost a son, too, recently — when he came back after flying to Paris.  They brought him back on a big ship, and Coolidge introduced him.  And you can find that — I’ll put the link on my Facebook page for Coolidge fans if you want to hear it, of Coolidge welcoming Lindbergh.  He loved him but he also saw the enormous potential for this industry, this innovation, to change America.

Coolidge was all about networking.  He grew up in a village that did not get into a network, in his day the railroad network.  And he saw the incredible cost to his village of being passed by, Plymouth Notch, Vermont.  And when you were not passed by, the incredible benefit.  He thought about net — you know, he played with trains; he rode home even as a schoolchild from Ludlow where he went to high school, about the depot.  That’s what impressed him.  And he was sure going to be endeavoring as an adult to connect.  That’s very modern.  You know, there’s nothing about that that’s old.  And also his understanding of venture capital and ideas.  And you see that with Andrew Mellon as well.  You see it in his understanding.

The other modern thing about him that I like very much is his understanding that you can’t subsidize everyone.  So he sort of saw into the future and saw that if you hand out a subsidy to one group, then another one will be behind it.

So he, way in advance, understood how moribund we are now.  He understood that once you are beholden to a million groups — well, your budget just can’t go anywhere because you have so many commitments.  They anticipated that, he specifically, as an expert budgeteer.

MR. DRISCOLL:  You briefly mentioned Coolidge’s son passing away just a moment ago, which I think I first read about over a decade ago in David Frum’s history of the 1970s, as a way to place fifty years of medical progress into context.  Could   you talk a bit about how Calvin, Jr. died?

MS. SHLAES:  Yes, and that is old-fashioned.  And the great frustration, the great tragedy to Coolidge — and he saw it — was that life was getting better and yet it didn’t get better fast enough to save his son who probably would not have died had there been antibiotics.

So the son dies in the ’20s — this is Calvin Junior — in a way that, you know, what happened to him, he got a blister from playing tennis on the White House court.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I think he was sixteen, right?

MS. SHLAES:  He was — let’s see, just sixteen.  Yeah.  And Calvin grew a lot — boys grow a lot and he was kind of skinny and tall.  And maybe his shoes were too small.  I haven’t figured out exactly what happened.  But he got a blister and within just about a week he was dead.  July 7, I think it was.  It was at the end of June he got the blister.  And there was nothing they could do about it, sepsis.

He went to Walter Reed.  You know, they tried to save him.  They tried so hard.  They did not expect him to die.  And Coolidge and Grace sort of liked to tell themselves — Mrs. Coolidge — that the dark days of people dying all around them were past because Coolidge’s mother had died, his sister had died of a disease you don’t die from now as well, basically appendicitis, while a school girl.  And he didn’t expect people to die just like that in the future.

But — and most people tell this story to show that Coolidge was depressed.  Oh he was depressed, right?  He was indeed depressed and you can see it in his autobiography the rigid logic of the depression.  Had I not been president, my son wouldn’t have played tennis, and he would’ve had gotten the blister, and he wouldn’t have died.

But I found, studying Coolidge and studying his story — and also I have to mention studying his faith, that he did not give up.  So this is not a story of “yes, but”.  It’s a story of “but, yes”.  As in the case, for example, of Lincoln.  Lincoln did not give up and become totally dysfunctional after the death of his son even though he loved his son and he was president.  He prosecuted his war.  And Coolidge prosecuted his war which happened to be a war to cut taxes, a war to — a budgetary fiscal war after the death of his son, Calvin Junior.

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