Library Interview: Amity Shlaes on Calvin Coolidge
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Politicians seem to love the sound of their own voices.
Calvin Coolidge, who became President after the sudden death of Warren Harding in 1923, didn’t have that problem. He made silence a hugely effective tool.
“Coolidge cultivated silence because he found it efficient,” says author Amity Shlaes, whose new biography of the 30th president will be published this summer.
“He knew that if you don’t answer someone, they tend to leave faster. He knew that even smiling encouraged them to keep talking.”
One famous story has Coolidge being seated at a dinner party next to a society lady who told “Silent Cal” that she’d bet with friends that she could make him say more than two words.
“You lose,” was his response. And she did.
Coolidge’s parsimony with words had a direct bearing on his ability to handle a daunting job, Shlaes believes.
“You can think of the presidency as an onslaught of people who every day are asking for something. If you’re going to get anything done, you have to learn how to say ‘no.’”
Shlaes will discuss Calvin Coolidge: The President Who Said “No” on Wednesday, February 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. The free event will be preceded by a reception at 6 p.m.
The evening is co-sponsored by the Show-Me Institute and the Sinquefield Charitable Trust.
Shlaes became interested in Coolidge while writing her 2007 book The Forgotten Man about the Great Depression.
“Working on that book I realized that Coolidge is the forgotten president,” she said. “Which is unfortunate because when he left office the federal government was smaller than when he entered it. The economy was growing at four percent annually, taxes were low, and the budget was balanced.”
Coolidge wasn’t your typical politician, Shlaes says.
“We think of politicians as active. We want a superman as president. But there’s another model posed by Coolidge. He achieved by inaction.
“He was the great refrainer. If he was a sport it would be wind surfing. It looks easy but it’s very difficult. It takes lots of core strength, lots of balance. His political strength was concentrated on resistance rather than acquiescence.”
A native of Vermont, Coolidge seems the very essence of New England Yankee reticence.
Shlaes believes that was a role he consciously adopted.
“Coolidge was a ham who played to that classic New England type. It was politically expedient because it allowed him to turn people down more easily.”
Coolidge said “no” in many ways.
“He used the veto a lot,” Shlaes says. “He had this concept that entitlements were wrong. He vetoed agricultural subsidies, even though he was from a farming community.
“He vetoed bonuses for veterans of World War I. Now that may not have worked out for individual veterans, but it was good for the overall economy. It meant that those veterans’ family members could find jobs.”
Coolidge is often regarded as having a 19th century mentality, but Shlaes notes that he was progressive and modern in many areas.
As a Republican he decried racism as being at odds with the essential aims of American democracy. He approved of laws that protected women and children in the workplace.
“He was very pro-aviation,” Shlaes points out. “And he was extremely good at operating in the new medium of the day, the radio. He enjoyed radio because it meant he wouldn’t have to travel as much.”
Under Coolidge the economy grew so quickly that most employers allowed their workers a two-day weekend. Productivity was such that they didn’t need to operate six days a week.
All this was done with minimal fanfare, Shlaes says.
“My impression is that a big part of his presidency was cleaning up the mess of the Harding administration. He left the Presidency in much better shape than he found it.”
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.