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Interview: Amity Shlaes Discusses Coolidge (With Transcript)

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.