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Ed Driscoll

Interview: Amity Shlaes Discusses Coolidge (With Transcript)

February 11th, 2013 - 12:01 am

And the theme of Coolidge, you’ll notice the book is a year late, that’s because I got very interested in writing about this and exposing it for the reader because it’s so relevant.  Coolidge loved that budget law and he used it in fantastic ways.  We looked at all the data at how often he met with his budget man, who was General Lord, another New Englander.  They met often, always before a cabinet meeting so he could be better prepared to say no.  As president he said no; that’s who he was.  He vetoed a lot.  He was a maestro, a kind of Isaac Stern of the pocket veto which is, you know, requires some technique.  This is the veto whereby the president need not write a message about why he’s vetoing it, where he actually kills the law, kills the legislation.  Very hard to override a pocket veto unlike a regular veto.  But you need to time it right.  There are rules about when you can pocket veto.  And he did pocket veto a lot.  In total Coolidge had fifty vetoes.

So he told his father it is better to kill bad laws than to pass good ones.  His father was a lawmaker in Montpelier, Vermont, in the State Capitol of Vermont which is Coolidge’s first home state.

So wow, that’s different.  And he used — he spent enormous energy reviewing the budget.  I like very much an interview when –again, he was in advance with technology — an early conference call he did with a group of philanthropists, and he told them at the beginning of the conference call that he didn’t really like to do speeches — remarks; he was tired or he sort of alluded to that.  But when he heard that these philanthropists wanted to talk about budgets, his heart warmed and he was ready to speak to them because he — as he said to them, I have an obsession with budgets.  I dream of sinking funds, and rates and balance sheets.

And this is exactly the kind of president we need now.  We need someone who is pretty far along in the learning curve of finance and of budgets and fiscal situations.  And he happened to be that because he’d been governor of a state because he was budget-minded by temperament.  Temperament places into this, too.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Amity, last couple of questions. I don’t know if the Coolidge book goes into this, but do you talk about how Coolidge’s reputation initially fell off after all of the very consequential events that occurred while presidents such as FDR, Truman and Ike, all very foreign affairs-oriented presidents, were at the helm.

MS. SHLAES:  Is that your euphemistic way of saying the Great Depression happened so some people may think it was his fault?

MR. DRISCOLL: Well, that’s actually a different question, and that’s also a great question.

MS. SHLAES:  So okay.  So the first question is foreign affairs.  You know, I think generally, people like heroes for presidents.  And American presidents can be foreign affairs heroes, war heroes or, you know, international heroes more easily than they can be domestic heroes because of federalism.  I mean you see that with Katrina, right?  The Europeans said why can’t President Bush run down there, he’s commander-in-chief, and take over the South.  And we know why he couldn’t run down there.  He couldn’t run down there because a president can’t go in a governor’s territory so fast.  He has to kind of ask.  And that little hiccup that always happens when there’s a disaster that’s the federalist pause and you can get a snapshot of any executive and say he’s pausing in disaster.  He’s inhumane, right?  But it’s very American.  It’s hard to be a superhero domestically because our federalist system doesn’t like that and that’s intentional.  We didn’t want a superhero because we don’t like dictators.

In foreign affairs we’re more comfortable with that, you know, commander-in-chief, power in, power out.  Coolidge was not a commander-in-chief in temperament often.  I mean, there’s some examples.  He was — anyway he more of another model.  He was a refrainer.  I call him “the Great Refrainer.”  He governed through inaction and intentionally.  And the result was outstandingly good.  But it’s not what we’re accustomed to and, of course, there wasn’t a big war in that period.  There were ugly little wars in Mexico, Nicaragua and so on.

So he wasn’t a war president.  He didn’t want to be because he didn’t like war because he saw the terrible waste of it.  He had been governor of Massachusetts when the troops went over and when they came home.  In the book, I follow the story of a ship that was a beautiful German ship called the Crown Princess Cecilia that, you know, ran around looking for cover when World War began and we commandeered her and then she became an American ship.  And she brought troops home and Coolidge welcomed the troops on that very former German ship.  And then she was wasted.

And there were many, many debates about what to do with these ships from World War I and the incredible waste of it grossed him out — grossed everyone out.  I mean the incredible cost of World War I didn’t go away even if the debt went down.  And they swore never war again and they especially focused on the waste in human life in efficiency.

And so he was eventually a fan of international law.  He signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact.  He got a big treaty through in a way that Wilson had not.  Interesting, compared to, you know, Wilson and Versailles and League of Nations.  And we tend — that’s another area where there may be some revision to mock this treaty.  This is the treaty that outlawed war.  But Coolidge said well, if we can — can’t always set an example militarily maybe we can at least set one through the law.  And maybe there’s some benefit to that.  He was a country lawyer.  So I spend quite a bit of time on that.

But he’s not a usual hero because he’s not a foreign hero, a war hero and because his heroism was in inaction rather than action often.

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