When you don’t have much to say, you’re often judged as aloof, disinterested or timid. This was the case with “Silent Cal,” a least in the eyes of left-leaning historians. Because he believed that you should not speak unless you can improve the silence, Coolidge often didn’t speak. He spoke enough to become governor of Massachusetts, but even while on his way to that office he was economical with language. His reticence and simplicity earned him ridicule. (Smart-alecky feminist poet Dorothy Parker, upon hearing of Coolidge’s death, remarked, “How could they tell?”).
However this quiet American president (1923-1929) is now being vindicated. Sooner or later, it seems, every major public figure gets his or her turn to be re-visited, re-researched and reconsidered in the light of the passage of time. A little time and distance is always good for objective seekers of truth.
But why has Coolidge’s time for analysis arrived? Why the many articles? Why the success of the recent biography by Amity Shlaes simply titled “Coolidge” which portrays him as watchful and effective, as well as cerebral?
I suspect that Coolidge’s time has come because historians wish to assess his supposedly simple, but successful solutions in light of what has been happening to America’s economy in the last half-decade.
Serving just before Herbert Hoover, Coolidge produced surpluses each year he was in office. According to Shlaes, it was Coolidge’s attentiveness to the federal budget that led to those surpluses and to the reduction of the top income rate from 70 percent to 25 percent.
Given the material prosperity that resulted from Coolidge’s brief presidency and from the Reagan and Clinton years, one wonders how many more examples are needed to illustrate the wisdom of reducing government and taxes. Coolidge’s treatment by historians also points out the gaps that exist in our knowledge of our history.
Understand that citizens are busy making a living, that we love sports or some other avocation, and that we like to relax with the remote after a day’s work, but modern Americans are letting life go by with little understanding of what is happening in the world around them. As the Hebrew proverb puts it, “For lack of knowledge, the people perish.”
And we do lack knowledge. We lack knowledge of how things came to be as they are. One year of high school American history or economics, at a time when most of us weren’t very interested anyhow, is not enough. To understand what we are now coping with economically, we must understand why we are now drowning (perishing?) in debt. We need to read and talk to fellow citizens about our country, its economy, and our common welfare.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, who held well-attended “polis” (town hall) meetings to discuss “polis,” i.e., government, Americans tend to neglect governmental involvement.
The result is ignorance of how we are being governed and what is happening economically.
For instance, one historical reality is the economic sea change brought on by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Big Government’s origin, with its crushing regulation and countless programs, actually began with FDR. Big Government is comparatively new-fangled, birthed 81 years ago. I’ll grant FDR sincerity, not just because my parents and my wife’s parents virtually deified him, but because of his tenable argument that his New Deal initiatives were a necessary Depression-cure measure.
But human nature loves bread and circuses. If they are “free,” or if we think they are, we don’t want to turn them loose. And turn loose we haven’t. When the Depression ended, instead of returning to the philosophy of the meticulous, scrimpy Coolidge, Big Government continued to grow. An FDR disciple, Lyndon Baines Johnson, continued to feed the beast. Obama is now gorging it.
To help curb the gorging, is there any reason in the world why we can’t abolish the federal Department of Education? It is a mere dollar-dispensing agency that dispenses only when states kowtow, and the states normally do. And what does the Department of Commerce do all day? And the Department of Labor?
Ignorance is not bliss; it is imminent danger. We find ourselves under oppressive, intrusive government because we weren’t watchful of its creep. We become conditioned to Big Government’s soft tyranny.
Can anyone imagine Calvin Coolidge being patient with a 14,000-page tax code? I’m sure he would say, “Needs cut’n. Cut it.” Handed any bills that would provide for stifling regulation, or more government agencies, Coolidge would have, no doubt, muttered, “Don’t need’em. Won’t sign’em.” Now that’s improving the silence, as well as the nation.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.