Cool hand Calvin: 'Coolidge' details the president who loved cutting taxes

Amity Shlaes writes a comprehensive biography of the 30th president who, quietly, presided over the booming 1920s


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U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon was "beaming" on the morning of Feb. 26, 1926, reporters observed. And well he might have been.

President Calvin Coolidge was set to sign the Revenue Act of 1926, a bill that would slash Mellon's income-tax bill and keep all tax returns private. Under the new rates, "Mr. Mellon himself gets a larger personal reduction than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska," Sen. George Norris, a political rival, had said during debate on the legislation.


"COOLIDGE"

By Amity Shlaes
Harper ($35).


That statistic doesn't disconcert Amity Shlaes, the author of "Coolidge," an exhaustive and at times exhausting biography of the nation's 30th president and one of the more obscure. Admittedly Mellon was a getting a whopper of a tax break -- his top rate was dropping from 46 percent to 25 percent -- but the Pittsburgh industrialist and banker had been paying more taxes than all the citizens of Nebraska as well, she writes.

Big cuts for the wealthy are always the result -- the goal, really -- of across-the-board tax cuts, since they reduce progressivity, Ms. Shlaes explains. She is a former Wall Street Journal editorial board member whose previous books include "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression." Those who earn more still pay more taxes, but as rates are lowered they are no longer paying so high a proportion of their income to the government.

Mellon called it "scientific taxation," predicting that lower rates ultimately would bring in more revenue as "job creators" would keep more of their money and expand their businesses. If it sounds familiar, it's because Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran on that idea in 2012. Mellon's ostensible boss, President Coolidge, was a believer and had lobbied Congress hard for the rate reductions.

Coolidge was president from 1923 to 1929, a period of great economic growth and rising income inequality. His reputation is one of a flinty New Englander who favored low taxes, small government and self-reliance. "Coolidge" doesn't change that image.

When floods devastated the Mississippi Valley in 1927, Coolidge opposed federal help for victims. He was consistent. When floods hit Coolidge's native Vermont later that same year, his position remained the same: relief and reconstruction were state and local concerns.

Born in the Green Mountain State in 1872, Coolidge headed to Massachusetts for education and to began his legal career. He was elected to both local and state offices, eventually becoming governor. He had his 15 minutes of fame in 1919 when he stood firm against Boston police officers who walked off the job. Ms. Shlaes' description of the police strike as Boston faced anarchy is among the best writing in her book.

The police officers had grounds for dissatisfaction, she concludes. Working conditions were bad and their pay had been effectively cut by several years of high inflation. But Coolidge believed they had no right to endanger the public and backed the decision to fire them. He may be remembered best for one line in his telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime."

His uncompromising stand propelled him onto the GOP ticket in 1920 as the vice presidential running mate of Warren G. Harding.

Harding won in a landslide. When the new president died in 1923 while on a trip out West, Coolidge took his place. He saw his job as protecting Harding's low-tax, small-government platform.

Philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin, adapting an idea from ancient Greece, divided leaders, writers and thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes, like Franklin Roosevelt, drew on many experiences and ideas. Hedgehogs, like Winston Churchill -- and Calvin Coolidge -- understand one big idea. For Churchill it was the existential danger of Hitler and the Nazis. For Coolidge the big idea was the belief that people and nations should always live within their means.

Unlike 21st-century politicians, Coolidge matched his tax cuts with dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. In the roaring 1920s that combination led to dramatic growth. As the nation drove into the automobile age, there was more than enough private demand to make up for the cuts Coolidge was making in government spending. The result was a shrinking of the federal debt and smaller budgets as the economy boomed.

• • •



I came away from the book with the belief that if I needed a lawyer whose honesty, integrity and frankness I could count upon, Coolidge would be my pick. There can be no doubt, however, that he was not much fun. His wife, Grace, who was much more outgoing and sociable than her husband, tried horseback riding for the first time in November 1923. "She looked wonderful in riding clothes," Ms. Shlaes writes. "But when Grace came back, Coolidge forbade her to go again. 'I think you will find,' he said, 'you'll do well in this job if you don't try anything new.' "

Like James Buchanan (the only president to be born in Pennsylvania), Coolidge was not a man to seek innovative solutions to radically changing circumstances. "I do not choose to run for president in 1928," he announced more than a year before the election. A big jump in the value of the stock market during his time in office raised fears of a correction or a collapse. Ms. Shlaes says that by December 1927, Coolidge told an aide he saw "economic disaster ahead."

"But Coolidge also believed it was wrong to do anything about it," she writes. Any problems would have to be handled by his GOP successor, Herbert Hoover.

Hoover was left holding the bag as the county spiraled into the Great Depression. Coolidge died Jan. 5, 1933, two months after Hoover lost his re-election bid and two months before Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration.

Coolidge never served as a soldier. His time in office in Massachusetts saw no major crisis, except for the police strike. The United States remained at peace during his presidency. He had the good fortune not to live in interesting times. "It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones," he once wrote.

Ms. Shlaes finds that he was a man who devoted himself to the motto "Do not do" or at least, "Do less." That philosophy mirrors Ms. Shlaes' conservative belief in non-activist government. "Coolidge," the book, is more than a polemic, but its subtext appears to be that 21st-century America could use policies like those of "Silent Cal" again.

Coolidge cultivated his reputation as a man of few words, so it seems appropriate that the title of Ms. Shlaes' book is a single word: "Coolidge." Most other authors would have added a subtitle. My offering would be something like "Coolidge: A Taciturn Man Who Would Not Shut Up About Cutting Taxes."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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