Amity Shlaes has written a new biography on President Calvin Coolidge, reviewed here by Gene Healy:
If there was ever a time when the president could simply preside, it has long passed. As early as the Eisenhower era, political scientist Clinton Rossiter observed that the public had come to see the federal chief executive as “a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen, and father of the multitudes.” Under the pressure of public demands, the office had accrued a host of responsibilities over and above its constitutional ones: “World Leader,” “Protector of the Peace,” “Chief Legislator,” “Manager of Prosperity,” “Voice of the People,” and more.
To that daunting portfolio add “Feeler-in-Chief,” a term coined in all earnestness by The New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd in 2010 while lashing out at Barack Obama for being insufficiently emotive about the BP oil spill. Obama, she wrote, had “resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.”
Poor MoDo would have kicked the cat in sheer frustration if confronted by the implacable, inscrutable Calvin Coolidge, whose reaction to the job’s more unreasonable demands was a Bartleby-like “I prefer not to.”
[. . .]
Here was “a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president,” Shlaes argues. And though history remembers “Silent Cal” mostly for his reticence and frequent napping, Shlaes reminds us that “inaction betrays strength.” In politics, it’s often easier to “do something,” however unwise, than it is to hold firm: “Coolidge is our great refrainer.”
Alas, after Coolidge‘s elegant introduction, the sledding gets much tougher. Long stretches of this 456-page tome read like an info-dump from Shlaes’s clearly formidable research files. Like the hardscrabble farmers of Plymouth Notch, you need to set your jaw grimly and persevere through a long winter of sentences that should have been left on the cutting room floor, like: “Coolidge met with [Budget Director Herbert] Lord six times and reduced a tariff on paintbrush handles by half, his second cut that year, the other a reduction in duty on live bob quail.” Shlaes should have followed the example of her famously taciturn subject, who in his 1915 opening address as president of the Massachusetts Senate delivered a crisp little homily of 44 words, ending in “above all things, be brief.”
Still, the level of detail she provides inspires reflection on the vast gulf between today’s GOP and the grand party of old. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge cut taxes and shrank spending. They were pro-peace and anti-wiretapping. They embraced “normalcy” instead of stoking fear. And — go figure — they were also popular. Today’s Republicans could profit from studying their example.