Biographer explains why Calvin Coolidge doesn’t rate well in presidential rankings

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Calvin Coolidge consistently ranks in the latter half of presidential rankings, but a biographer of the 30th president believes he deserves to be ranked much higher.

“Coolidge is forgotten because his sort of economics is forgotten,” Amity Shlaes, author of the recently released book “Coolidge,” explained to The Daily Caller in an email. “We haven’t taught stability, or hard money, or small state econ since before World War II.”

Shlaes, who authored a New York Times bestselling book on the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man,” and now directs the Four Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, says she greatly admires the subject of her latest tome, and believes he is among the top 10 best presidents in American history.

“He vetoed like crazy, 50 times, and even bills that served constituencies dear to his heart: fishermen, or farmers,” she said.

“He saw the vanity of office clearly, and worked hard to suppress vanity in his own case.”

While President Barack Obama may be no fan of the sequester, the man who occupied his office nine decades ago would likely have been all for it, said Shlaes.

“He would call for a rollback,” she said, when asked whether Coolidge would have supported reforming or eliminating Medicare and Social Security if he were alive today.

“He would say ‘sequester away.’ Why? Not because he was cruel, but because he thought government ought to do what it said it would do.”

See below TheDC’s full interview with Shlaes about her book, what politicians she believes are carrying on Coolidge’s legacy and much more:

What propelled you to write the book?

The story of the 1930s, the subject of “The Forgotten Man,” is really a story of “how they broke it” — the it being the economy. In the 1920s the story is the other way. The economy was essentially broken after World War I. So the bio of the 1920s, and the bio of Harding and Coolidge, is the bio of “how they fixed it.”

What did Coolidge do as president to earn your admiration as a hero?

He vetoed like crazy, 50 times, and even bills that served constituencies dear to his heart: fishermen, or farmers. He saw the vanity of office clearly, and worked hard to suppress vanity in his own case. There’s a famous story in which a senator tried to jolly Coolidge by flattering him and pointing to the White House, saying, “I wonder who lives in that pretty house?” “Nobody,” Coolidge replied, “they just come and go.”

Didn’t he support the minimum wage at one point in his career, and tariffs? How did that square with his anti-regulation ethos?

Coolidge had a long career, and held office nearly every year of it. While a younger man he supported many progressive ventures, including wage increases, and, for example, as governor signed a Massachusetts bill limiting the hours women and children might work (1919). But the older Coolidge got the less progressive he became. This was true for two reasons. While a young man, he still believed in progressive ideas — he grew up, politically, under the star of progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt. But experience suggested to Coolidge that too much law was not even good for the disadvantaged. The second reason for the general shift in Coolidge was his move from state to national government. Coolidge was a “state progressive” — he thought states could and should get involved in social issues, but the national government should not. So as a national leader he turned away from national legislation that he might endorse if the same statute were written for a single state.

On tariffs, he supported them, and he was wrong.

What would Coolidge do with today’s welfare state? Would he accept Medicare and Social Security, but seek to reform the programs to make them sustainable? Or would he advocate abolishing them?

He would call for a rollback. He would say “sequester away.” Why? Not because he was cruel, but because he thought government ought to do what it said it would do.

Why does Coolidge continue to rank in the lower of half in all the presidential rankings? Even the 2005 Wall Street Journal ranking that lists Ronald Reagan as the 6th best president lists Coolidge in 26th place.

The Journal forgot its own position. At Coolidge’s death, the Journal wrote that “in due time, the good fortune of the country to have had such a man as Calvin Coolidge in just the years he filled that office will be more clearly recognized.” But generally: Coolidge is forgotten because his sort of economics is forgotten. We haven’t taught stability, or hard money, or small state econ since before World War II.

Where do you think he deserves to be ranked?

Top 10.

What is the most interesting statistic or anecdote you discovered researching the book?

That in March 1929, when Coolidge departed Washington, the Federal budget was actually lower than when he came in. Not relative to GDP, but flat out, lower, and of course lower in real terms. Second most interesting pair of facts: Ku Klux Klan collapsed and lynching went down in the later Coolidge years.

What shaped Coolidge’s worldview?

His sense of service: Coolidge thought office was more important than its holder. As governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge actually told lawmakers in the state legislature he vetoed their raise because “service in the general court is not obligatory, but optional.” And: “membership in the general court is not a job.” He just didn’t believe service was the same as a job.

What politicians do you think carry on Coolidge’s legacy today?

I’m not so sure, but the ones oriented to the budget.

Do you know what your next book project is going to be? If so, what?

Not sure today. My first project is to expand Coolidge and help more young people get to know this remarkable man.

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