David Greenberg: The WSJ Likes His Coolidge





[Mr. Derbyshire's latest book is "Unknown Quantity," a history of algebra.]

While Calvin Coolidge will probably never make the top 10 in those rankings of our presidents that emerge periodically from academic surveys, his reputation has been considerably rehabilitated over the past 40 years from the depths to which the New Deal historians consigned it. His strengths as chief executive are now appreciated, and the immense popularity he enjoyed in his own time is understood as more than a mere aberration of public taste. This modern, more rounded view is the one on display, most of the time, in David Greenberg's "Calvin Coolidge."...

Many were skeptical of this dry, taciturn Yankee, but Coolidge soon dispelled their doubts. As Mr. Greenberg writes: "Coolidge managed several feats soon after taking office. He contained, after initial missteps, the burgeoning scandals that would posthumously tar Harding's legacy. He set a political agenda that, despite his troubles pushing it through Congress, helped define his era. And, for all his political errors in dealing with Capitol Hill, he mastered the new politics of public opinion, emerging as a hugely popular politician associated with the decade's economic surge."

"Silent Cal" was a pro-business, small-government president to a degree beyond the wildest dreams of today's conservatives. The tax cuts effected by Coolidge and by his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon ("under whom three presidents served," goes the old quip), were so effective that, as Mr. Greenberg reports, "by the end of Coolidge's second term most Americans paid no federal income taxes at all." William Humphrey, who was Coolidge's appointee to the Federal Trade Commission, described the FTC as "an instrument of oppression and disturbance and injury" to U.S. industry. Americans liked Coolidge's policies because of the great prosperity that resulted. Inflation-adjusted GNP grew 49% during the Harding and Coolidge presidencies, the highest growth on record. Inflation and unemployment statistics were just as impressive.

Whether Coolidge's policies led directly to the 1929 crash and the Depression that soon followed has been much debated. Mr. Greenberg takes a fairly stern line: "Coolidge's naïve faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business... deterred him from even asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune." But why was Coolidge's faith naïve when it led the nation to such spectacular success? And was anyone else asking those mitigating questions?...





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