Coolidge: An American enigma (Sobel)

Robert Sobel was an economic historian, who published this book near the end of his own career. The general thrust was to relate how Calvin Coolidge attained the presidency in the first place (being in the right place at the right time helped a lot, but he also worked hard), review what he accomplished in office and how he did it, and assess his presidential legacy.

The story is told in chronological order, and Sobel does a fine job of capturing the human side of a president referred to by some as “silent Cal” who was considerably more enterprising and personable than critics have suggested.

SUMMARY: Rural family background in Vermont – only child, very close to both his mother and father – attended Amherst, clerked with a law firm in Northampton, Mass. – gravitated into a succession of political positions, eventually becoming the state governor – came to national prominence due to his successful handling of a Boston police strike in 1919 – nominated as Warren Harding’s running mate in 1920, basically to balance the ticket – acquired familiarity with national issues during three years as vice president, while not getting involved in the scandals that wracked the Harding presidency in 1923 – became president when Harding died – was resoundingly reelected in 1924 and served one full term – chose not to run again in 1928 (saying he had served long enough already) – was succeeded by Herbert Hoover who had served as his secretary of Commerce – returned to Northampton, where he wrote a memoir and undertook numerous other writing projects – passed away before the end of Hoover’s term at the age of 61.

Various policy ideas arise in the course of the narrative, most of which are familiar in contemporary politics. As the saying goes, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Many politicians claim to favor fiscal responsibility, but Coolidge really meant it. He took pride in cutting taxes, and then cutting spending to pay the tab with the result that the economy boomed and the national debt was substantially reduced.

In general, Coolidge opposed expansion of the sphere of federal government activity. Thus, he worked hard (albeit without success) to divest the government energy complex at Muscle Shoals, Alabama that would eventually become the centerpiece for FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority. And he opposed farm product price support programs, which would be embraced during the New Deal.

It’s not true that Harding lacked empathy for human suffering, however, as shown by his support for relief efforts during the Mississippi River flood of 1927. He also favored high tariffs to protect American manufacturers – hardly a free market approach – in part because the resulting revenue contributed to reducing deficits.

Another myth is that Coolidge was an isolationist. He actually took a serious interest in international relations, albeit with an emphasis on arms limitation agreements designed to minimize the perceived need for defense spending.

It turns out the “peak oil” theory isn’t new. Thus, in 1920, “the US Geological Survey said that the country had twelve years’ petroleum reserves and that new discoveries were diminishing.”

In hindsight, some critics have dismissed the prosperity of the 1920s (under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover) on grounds that it was unsustainable and predictably led to a big stock market crash and the Great Depression. Sobel demurs, pointing out that others didn’t see the Depression coming either. In fact, as is generally the case, there were probably as many financial sages saying the good times would keep rolling as were predicting a major correction.

Amazon review (entitled “A no-nonsense president”) published
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