Columnist and author Amity Shlaes stops by for a half-hour interview to discuss Coolidge, her new sequel — or perhaps prequel is the better word — to The Forgotten Man, her best-selling look at the 1930s. The latter book shed new light on the Depression, by exploring its “Forgotten Men” — the entrepreneurs and employees whose lives were up-ended by the destructive “Progressive” policies of first Herbert Hoover, and then FDR.
Coolidge places the Roaring ‘20s into context by focusing on the man who helped make them possible, by getting out of the way. Silent Cal was the only president who ever said, “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.” And along the way, as Amity mentions in our interview, “He was in office more than one presidential term. And when he left that office, the federal budget was lower than when he came in. Real, nominal — with vanilla sprinkles on top. Wow, how’d he do that?”
How indeed? During our wide-ranging interview, Shlaes discusses such topics as:
● Recovering a sense of traditional America after Woodrow Wilson’s oppressive administration and collectivism during WWI.
● The real version of Coolidge’s “the business of America is business” quote.
● The surprising modernity of the 1920s and Coolidge himself.
● The tragic and untimely death of Coolidge’s son, and how it impacted Coolidge himself.
● Coolidge’s fear of where the unending expansion of government could lead.
● Who best fits the model of Coolidge today.
And much more. Click here to listen:
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page. Incidentally, I first interviewed Amity for an early segment of PJM Political, which ran on Sirius-XM satellite radio from 2007 through the end of 2010, not too long after The Forgotten Man was released. Fortunately, that episode is still online; Shlaes’ interview begins at about the 25:50 mark.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking with Amity Shlaes. In 2007, she published The Forgotten Man, which was a beautifully written look at the 1930s, placing first Herbert Hoover and then FDR and their quote-unquote “progressive” economic policies into context by focusing on the businessmen and employees, the forgotten men of the 1930s, who were adversely impacted by those policies.
This month she’s releasing Coolidge, which is a sequel — or perhaps a prequel is a better word, focusing on the man who presided over what we now call “The Roaring Twenties,” Calvin Coolidge.
And Amity, thank you for stopping by today.
MS. SHLAES: Thank you.
MR. DRISCOLL: How long after finishing The Forgotten Man did you start work on Coolidge, and how did you do your research?
MS. SHLAES: I think I started working on Coolidge while I was writing The Forgotten Man because I wrote one draft of
Forgotten Man, this history in the 1930s. And then I thought well, this doesn’t work narratively because I didn’t describe what the change was from; where they started, what were their premises. Their premises were the premises of the ’20s and, you know, the ’20s premises were maybe smaller government is better, maybe still the pendulum of government action, reduce uncertainty in the policy environment so that a business can go forward. All these ideas were ideas from the ’20s, and whose ideas were they? Well, they were Calvin Coolidge’s and before Coolidge, Harding’s ideas. But mostly Coolidge’s, I think he’s the hero of the ’20s.
So I went back at the very last minute with Forgotten Man and put Coolidge in and he felt just right. I really liked him. And I thought well, we don’t — we don’t appreciate him much and what I learned in that short look for writing the new beginning to Forgotten Man made me want to go back and give him his own show.
MR. DRISCOLL: Coolidge is sadly remembered today by many people for only one quote and that’s “The business of America is business,” which is actually a bastardization of what Coolidge really said. Could you place that quote into context?
MS. SHLAES: Yes, that’s from a nice speech to newspaper people, actually. And he says the chief business of America is business, and he also says the chief ideal of Americans is idealism. So there’s a yoking together of two concepts, if you go back and read the whole speech, and it’s not fair to paint him as a only capitalism or capitalism to the exclusion of other areas. He’s not like Ayn Rand, for example, because he always tends to bring in the spiritual — other spheres in — and he doesn’t think only capitalism always prevails. He sees a balance. What he doesn’t like is when capitalism or business intrudes upon spiritual. And that’s very different from modern libertarianism.
So anyway it’s all there and that’s — he was extremely idealistic and extremely spiritual, some would say pious. Herbert Hoover called him a fundamentalist, and that was not a compliment coming from Herbert Hoover.
MR. DRISCOLL: The Forgotten Man helped to place FDR into context by focusing on many personal histories of the 1930s, beyond the palace intrigue of Capitol Hill.
These days, whatever collective history we have of the 1920s seems to come from The Great Gatsby, The Untouchables, and TV shows like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. How badly do people today misremember the decade of the 1920s ?
MS. SHLAES: We really misremember it and then you want to ask why. So Forgotten Man was about the misremembering of the 1930s. Coolidge is about the misremembering of the 1920s.
So the cliches you describe, and they’re fun and amusing, are that it was all a lie or about guns and alcohol, something illegal and contraband, corruption resulting from prohibition. Or it was all a lie; Gatsby wasn’t real wealth. He was an illusion. He was a shimmer in a champagne glass. Right?
So when you go back and look at the ’20s — this is the era of Coolidge, you see a lot of real growth. Things we would envy, we wish we could have, such as employment was often below five percent. When you wanted a job you got one. Wages rose in real terms. Not a lot but consistently. You can go back and look at that, even for unskilled workers. Well, what else — interest rates were pretty low. The budget was in surplus. We didn’t have a deficit. The federal debt was huge from World War I. We were bringing it down reliably.
And in a case people got a car. So you see the inflection points of the Coolidge service in Washington. First there’s a Model T; then comes the Model A. He himself liked Lincoln cars. Actually I think because of the president. So people got cars.
They got electricity. This is very important for households and for women because the drudgery of housework, we can’t even imagine before electricity. Right?
So a lot of things got better. People live longer, were healthier in the ’20s, had more money, had more fun. It’s an era to which we would aspire.
And what Coolidge book is, is it’s about what kind of government goes with that and he’s just a different model.
He himself is often mocked and, you know, that’s the charm of the project in a way. The charm and the need of the project and the need for it is that he’s ranked fairly low in all the charts. You see him in the bottom half or so.
You remember the little stories about Coolidge. And people talked about how he was lazy or he was mean. His taciturnity, his silence — “Silent Cal”, that’s his nickname — was often depicted as nastiness. And the stories are tough.
We all tell the story of how he sat next to a society lady who was ready to get him talking. And she told him sort of gaily that she had bet somebody else that she could get him to say more than two words. And you know the reply, don’t you, Ed?
MR. DRISCOLL: You lose.
MS. SHLAES: You lose. He didn’t say, “You lose, lady,” because she would’ve won. He was tough, but if you want to just, you know, why should we care, we care. There’s just one sentence; it’s all you need to know. He was in office more than — let’s see, sixty-six months, something like that.
He was in office more than one presidential term. And when he left that office, the federal budget was lower than when he came in. Real, nominal — with vanilla sprinkles on top. Wow, how’d he do that? Because the economy grew quite well — three or four percent sometimes, right?
The population was growing; everything was going well. Usually when everything goes well in the U.S. the government grows right? He actually shrank it. He didn’t just cut the increase which is — today when they’re talking about cutting the budget they’re talking about cutting the increase, right?
So who is this guy? And that’s what the Coolidge book tries to capture. Who was someone who cares about debt and how can someone who cares about debt, who almost fits the parody of a Scrooge, give so much plenty — give their country — he was a Scrooge who begat plenty.
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.
MR. DRISCOLL: Was there a concerted effort after World War I to step on the brakes and slow the pace of the expansion of government? And if so, how did this movement gather steam and was it called, as we would call it today, conservatism, or did it go by some other name?
MS. SHLAES: Well, this is the great topic of interest to us because there they are like us. There had been a mess; there had been ruction. Right? There had been trouble, chaos. And no one knew how it would turn out. The federal government owed a lot of money. You know, imagine a government owing a billion or two billion going to twenty-eight billion. So the increase was at an outstanding rate. The numbers weren’t the same as now but the increase was large. And then the budget had expanded mightily too.
And people wondered whether — well, would the U.S. be a creditor or a debtor nation. It might — it had often been a debtor; now maybe it was a cred — well, you know, the permanent status of the U.S.’s superpower was not acknowledged in the same way, yet.
And what did they do? I think one answer you can look at is in the Harding-Coolidge campaign of 1920: “Normalcy.” And, Ed, what did you learn normalcy was in school? I learned it was something kind of dull, right? Like the — normalcy doesn’t sound elevated or wonderful and that was the Harding motto.
But what they meant by normalcy is not we should all be normal and cogs. Right? What they meant is the environment should be normal so that we can have fun and play with new ideas, which is something very different. Predictability, the reduction of uncertainty. Coolidge as a candidate even used the phrase “uncertainty” which you hear so much today and which is also the subject of Forgotten Man. It’s less uncertainty, please. He really — it’s a theme all the way to the end of his life. You can find it in his columns post-presidency. He spoke of uncertainty.
So wow, that’s very modern as well. He got at something we thought we just learned about, right? And their aim was to reduce uncertainty. To create normalcy so that business might do what it needs to do. Not necessarily only business but business.
And then the policy that followed — in general you can count the innovations of that period. They’re astounding.
MR. DRISCOLL: And it sounds like a very, very different mindset than FDR’s constant focus on what he dubbed “bold experimentation” on the economy?
MS. SHLAES: Right. But there were Progressives then. It was — it wasn’t as if everybody, you know, I kind of hear you sighing and saying, well, of course it was different then; people were for that. But there were Progressives who wanted, say, to nationalize water and power. Right? They were around, and you know that in 1924 they got seventeen percent of the vote. Like Ross Perot, they were a big presence. They were dividing the Republican Party or so it was thought. The Democrats were thinking of going to the left; Wilson had just made the Democrats progressive — Woodrow Wilson.
So in World War I, the government had shut down the stock market, New York — the stock market was in New York, so it was shut down in New York but the federal government was there in the background. And it had nationalized the chief means of transport, the railroad, and then denationalized it messily.
There were extreme interventions of the government, as in our recent period with the crisis. And nobody knew whether we could stop the Progressive march forward and yet Coolidge did stop it. He really did. Harding started and Coolidge did most of the work. He stopped it by — just by main force, by putting his thumb in the dike or, you know, you can think of different metaphors. I see him sort of in a blocking action. Or you’ve heard — you remember William Buckley used to talk about standing athwart history and –
MR. DRISCOLL: Uh-huh.
MS. SHLAES: — and yelling stop. Coolidge was a president, not a journalist. But I see him, too, as standing athwart history, yelling stop, and using his whole political tool kit to stop.
The number — you asked about budgets just to get back to the technical. What did they do? One thing they did was say we will restore certainty. We will narrow the parameters — narrow the possibilities, the unknown unknowns, right?
The second thing they did was they passed a budget law that made it possible for the president to budget. Before that it had sort of been with different committees just coming to the executive and he never got an overview and had not the staff either to get an overview, to have a real U.S. budget. That was the 1921 law which Harding signed. And they cut taxes.
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.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, does the book go into how Coolidge’s reputation has risen in the last fifteen to twenty years?
MS. SHLAES: No, not at all.
MR. DRISCOLL: Okay.
MS. SHLAES: Because I don’t do any historiography. There’s wonderful historiography done starting with [Thomas B. Silver]. Maybe you have that book? I’m staring at my shelf of my Coolidge-iana (sic) to see if it’s here. But [Silver] is a book about Coolidge and historians that was written I think out of Claremont. There are some wonderful Coolidge scholars over there. And there are a few other books. There’s a pretty good book by — I like — I will say more than pretty good, great book by Sobel focusing just on economics. Unfortunately, Mr. Sobel died. And this is a book I looked at more than ten years ago with Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal.
So, you know, this is all going on. But he hasn’t been revised anywhere near as much as upward as he should be. The correction has just begun, Ed.
I know you were going to ask about World War — about the depression and World War II, Ed –
MR. DRISCOLL: Uh-huh.
MS. SHLAES: — and whether Coolidge is to blame for that. And here’s what I have to say, Ed. This is the prequel book, you said it right, to Forgotten Man which is about the ’30s. So the ’30s shows how government made it worse. That’s really what The Forgotten Man is about. Government made things worse. Whether it was Hoover or Roosevelt, you can trace some of it back to the ’20s, the causes of the Great Depression, particularly foreign material. You know, UK went on the gold standard, off the gold standard. Germany’s trouble and so on. But not too much. It’s very hard to hang the blame for the Great Depression. Its duration; its severity. Remember eleven years un-Coolidge. Everyone knew that the stock market was too high in 1929 including Coolidge, who bought — tried to buy depression-proof stocks, and I have some of his stock records to see that.
He didn’t believe, and there’s an argument he was right, that it was the job of the a federal government to manage the stock market or even the money; the Fed was supposed to do that.
So he thought there would be more damage if the government got involved, long term — more damage long term. It might look good if the government went in and rescued, but longer term you’d have trouble. And that — there’s a pretty good case for that — that argument.
So it’s hard to hang on him. He was morose, in fact, because he thought a downturn would give authority to the Progressives and undo some of his own work. Or, you know, take down the dams he had built.
MR. DRISCOLL: Amity, last question. The Forgotten Man was published in 2007, and the American people elected a president who fancies himself the second coming of FDR a year later. How likely are we to see the second coming of Coolidge, or at least someone who is reasonably responsible in terms of spending and regulation, anytime soon?
MS. SHLAES: No, more likely than we know. I mean, the Progressives thought they ruled in 1919. They never thought anyone but the Progressives would ever win again. And they had angry soldiers on their side. Much worse than, you know, Occupy Wall Street. They had riots in our cities and the conservatives were cowering in the corner.
But the concern about prosperity was there, and eventually people thought well, who will help with business, at least make it normal. We mentioned normalcy. And then they looked around, and suddenly more — let’s say, more economically oriented, less intrusive candidates began to seem attractive. That was Harding-Coolidge. And lo and behold, Republicans were elected; could’ve been conservative Democrats, happened to be Republicans. There’s a nice book about how all the candidates in ’20 were relatively conservative.
So the country had a second thought after the Progressive impulse and the mess. And then Coolidge was one of the products of that or, you know, and that could change. We have plenty of candidates who care about budgets. And there’s no, you know, there’s no candidate — Coolidge can’t reach out from the grave and nominate people now. But the one candidate who kind of reminds me of Coolidge is Paul Ryan. And it’s a shame that when we look at the GOP the past year we say Paul Ryan didn’t help, we should soften Paul Ryan. I think Paul Ryan was very strong. And if Paul Ryan had had more, you know, more pride of place, people would’ve listened a little harder to the Republicans. That’s my view.
People do know, and especially young people who will be paying, that debt will be a problem. Debt is the number one problem for the United States. It doesn’t seem like that now, but they know it’s coming. And they will look for a candidate who cares about debt. And they will understand that government austerity doesn’t always mean terrible — doesn’t always mean — there’s nothing more punitive about it than lying which is the current — the current posture. Let’s pretend we don’t have a problem and pretend we like you. Sometimes government austerity benefits people.
I want to mention one thing. I said “Silber’s” name wrong; it’s Silver, and Coolidge and the Historians is his book. We must be respectful of the people who went before us, especially those who wrote about this wonderful man, Calvin Coolidge.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com and we’ve been talking with Amity Shlaes, the author of Coolidge. It’s published by HarperCollins and due out on February 12th at Amazon.com and your local bookstore.
And Amity good luck with the new book, and thank you once again for stopping by.
MS. SHLAES: Oh, thank you.
(End of recording)