Skip to comments.End of the Coolidge Joke
Posted on 02/21/2013 5:09:48 PM PST by Kaslin
WASHINGTON -- I am indebted to Amity Shlaes for gently correcting a joke of mine that dates back to July 8, 1972. On that date in the New York Times, I joshed that President Calvin Coolidge "probably spent more time napping than any president in the nation's history" and therefore was a successful president. My joke was a play on an earlier joke by H. L. Mencken, and now Shlaes has corrected both of us. She has written a very impressive biography titled simply "Coolidge," wherein she never mentions Cal's naps but rather what made him the most successful president of the 1920s. He reversed the economic insolvency of President Woodrow Wilson, and set the economy on the road to growth, a road made rocky by Cal's successor, President Herbert Hoover, and rockier still by Hoover's successor, Franklin Roosevelt.
Though one would not know it today, Coolidge was the most successful president of the 1920s. Vice President Coolidge came to the presidency on the death of President Warren G. Harding in August 1923 and won the presidency outright in 1924 with 54 percent of the vote over the Democrat, John W. Davis, who had 28.8 percent of the vote, and the Progressive, Robert M. La Follette, who won just 16.6 percent of the vote. Moreover, Coolidge had won every race he ever contested from his first run for city councilman in 1898 to the governorship of Massachusetts in 1918, usually by astoundingly large margins. His combination of civility, effectiveness, standing by the law and, as president, tax cuts, budget balancing, and growth, was wildly popular with American voters, as was his singular asset, taciturnity.
He even outdid President Ronald Reagan on the economy. Reagan inherited President Jimmy Carter's anemic economy. He cut taxes and, with Paul Volcker as his guide, cut inflation. He put the economy on a growth curve for years thereafter. Yet, as Shlaes points out, he failed to reduce the deficit -- though he did reduce it as a percentage of GDP -- and he failed to cut the federal budget.
Coolidge did. In fact, he cut the top income tax rate to 25 percent, three percentage points lower than Reagan's historic 1986 tax cuts, and the economy grew. Coolidge reduced the national debt from $28 billion to $17.65 billion with a combination of economies and tax cuts. He actually balanced the budget. When, in 1929, he returned to his Massachusetts home, he left the federal budget smaller than it was when he had arrived in 1921. Of equal importance, the economy was now solidly growing.
The unemployment rate that was at 5.7 million in July 1921 had dropped to 1.8 million. Manufacturing had climbed by a third since 1921, and iron and steel production had doubled. Finally the revenue acts of 1921, 1924, and 1928 represented strong growth despite tax reduction. Something was working.
Coolidge's secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, called it "scientific taxation." Today we would call his tax plan supply-side economics. By cutting marginal tax rates, Coolidge and Mellon goaded economic activity and raised tax revenue. Yet, through all the years of his presidency, Coolidge, along with his secretary of the treasury Mellon, had to fight off big spenders -- not only the Democrats but also those Republicans infected with a kind of influenza for Big Government called progressivism. There were great projects such as the hydroelectric project called Muscle Shoals, and there were noble gestures such as the veterans' pensions that kept the pressure on the Administration to spend and tax and burst the budget.
Cal resisted most of these impulses with his pocket veto and fifty vetoes, but it wore him down. In 1927, he cryptically signed a message to the world: "I do not choose to run for President in Nineteen Twenty-Eight." Hoover ran and returned the progressive impulse to Washington.
So, Ms. Shlaes, I was wrong. Coolidge was a great man but not because of his napping. He accomplished what he accomplished by cutting taxes and cutting budgets. It took a lot of energy, and it took fortitude.
Tyrrell did not know Coolidge was a great President? I doubt that.
Coolidge was sworn into office by his father who was a notary public and therefore eligible to administer the oath. Cal was visiting his dad at the time in his rural Vermont home which had neither electricity nor telephone.
Silent Cal should be adopted the patron saint of the tea party.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, oh-so-terribly wrong.
Hoover put more fingers into more economic orifices than anyone other than FDR. Hoover was a notorious meddler in the economy. Here’s Silent Cal’s own appraisal of Hoover:
“That man has offered me unsolicited advice every day for six years, all of it bad.”
Coolidge also called Hoover “Wonder Boy.”
Most people don’t know it, and Republicans are loathe to admit it, but Hoover was the brainiac behind quite a lot of agricultural subsidies in attempts to prop up grain prices going into late ‘29 and early ‘30. Coolidge, on the other hand, vetoed the McNary-Haugen bills *twice*... and Hoover started down the road of propping up ag commodity prices before FDR arrived.
We could do far worse.
The one thing about Coolidge that’s not been replicated in post-WWII times (with the possible exception of Truman) is that Coolidge made himself very accessible to the press and the people. He gave, oh, at least six press conferences a month, he was photographed out and about this land with all sorts of people, in all sorts of settings, he was very accessible.
On social issues, he was very reticent, however, loathing to inject himself or the office of the President into things like the Scopes trial.
So he had that going for him.
He wasn’t the greatest speaker but man his words sure rang true.
Hmm. On the other hand, the economy Coolidge created crashed hard just seven months after he left office, and Hoover hadn’t done much of anything to change policy course.
There had been similar and even worse crashes before in the 1800’s and they recovered quite swiftly as the market corrected itself, Hoover a Progressive made matters worse and this led the way for FDR.
Coolidge was born on the Fourth of July, the only President to achieve that feat.
I've seen his grave in Vermont--very simple with nothing saying he was President (there is a Presidential seal on the grave marker but you have to know already what it is to know that). When I saw it several years ago it looked too fresh to be the original stone from when Calvin Coolidge died--maybe someone had vandalized or stolen the original.
Well, to be fair, the Depression was caused by a debt deflation. The banking sector imploded, and when the banks started failing, the bank runs started.
At that point, there was nothing else that was going to happen other than an economic implosion. Once people quit trusting the financial system, there’s very little that can be done to stimulate the economy. It’s a large part of the problem now - lots of people simply don’t trust the financial system. I don’t, and I know more about the internal workings of the US financial system than 99% of the population.
The best thing that happened to stop the free-fall of the Depression was FDR declaring that three-day “bank holiday” and claiming that only the “sound banks would re-open.” Mind you, it was a compete sham - as it took years to weed out the unsound banks after that point. But it stopped the bank runs down by creating some confidence in the system. If the runs had been allowed to continue unchecked, the Depression could have been much worse.
This tactic would never work today, as there is too much transparency about the financial system and several screaming-face financial news networks to spread bad news. What Bush should have done is make acceptance of TARP money conditional upon a complete examination of the books and derivative positions of any of these banks. It would have caused some of them to go under, but it would have restored confidence in the system when the dust cleared. As it is now, we’ve got these zombie banks - they’re dead, but they don’t know it yet, and they keep walking around, infecting the rest of the economy.
Ah you know Glenn Beck says that Coolidge was the perfect president. Him and Harding essentially marked a throwback to the hands-off presidency of the 19th century (after the activism of TR and Wilson), something we would never truly see again. And of course he also knew a Depression was coming and to wisely get out of office before it happened.
The ironic thing is that those presidents like Coolidge who actually left things be, followed the Constitution, and didn’t abuse their executive power are derided as useless do-nothings while guys like Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR who were virtual dictators are considered heroes by American historians. Why? Because people believe that they were the kind of leaders who got things accomplished.
Now Hoover was much like Nixon before Nixon. While widely reviled by liberals as a greedy evil Republican who loved seeing people suffer, in truth both men were far more like Democrats than anything. The basis of the New Deal began under Hoover and not FDR, the difference being mostly that the former was not willing to take it as far.
The Wall Street collapse has a number of curious things which aren’t readily discussed.
First, a large number of bank presidents from across the nation (small and medium-sized banks included)...simply went into the vault...removed funds...and invested their holdings onto stocks. No law existed at the time to stop them, and almost no one in the public or in the media grasped this.
Second, when the collapse started....it is very evident that a number of people had geared the market for a peak, and then walked away from the mess. To this date....no one has ever been able to piece together the group or their timing. Outside influences? Doubtful. But someone walked away with tons of money, and watched the collapse from a safe distance.
Third, over the next 100 days after the Wall Street....the government really didn’t have a clear understanding of how far and wide this extended, and appeared to be in disbelief that banks would be that stupid to invest other people’s money. When the government did finally realize the problem....they could not invent a fix for this.
Fourth and final....when FDR appears....he simply stirs the pot....never going for a clear fix or solution. He was more of the problem than wanting to clearly bring the depression to an end.
Did he plan to be born on the 4th of July and did he know he was going to be president?
I learned sometime back that Coolidge was a “great” President because he did very little. Many Presidents insist on doing things to make themselves more famous.
But maybe he just heard all the Fourth of July celebrations going on while in the womb and came out to see what the commotion was all about.