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In the Summer of 1923, when he was working a job in a tobacco field, another boy discovered [Calvin Jr's] identity and remarked: "If my father was president, I would not work in a tobacco field." To which the boy replied. "If my father were your father, you would."

We of a certain age can well recall the perplexity with which the Washington press corps and punditocracy greeted the news that upon moving into the Oval Office, in 1981, Ronald Reagan removed the portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman and hung those of Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower. Such are the changing fortunes of presidents and the ebb and flow of history that younger folk may be unaware that not only was Mr. Reagan reviled by the Left at that time but his Republican predecessors were viewed as ciphers at best, if not incompetent boobs. Of course, Mr. Reagan and his Revolution played no small part in restoring the reputations of those GOP stalwarts, as he largely discredited the legacy of fifty years of liberalism and laid the groundwork for the more conservative, free market, faith-based, Third Way social and entitlement reforms to follow.

David Greenberg, a Rutgers professor and Slate columnist, is too well-informed, historically honest, and just plain young to buy into the old liberal orthodoxy about Calvin Coolidge. So, he has produced a more fair and balanced history than the 30th president might have been treated to otherwise, especially in a series in which the volumes have been so relentlessly assigned to establishment liberals. However, Mr. Greenberg does hoist his subject, and himself, on the core incoherence at the heart of modern liberalism when he criticizes President Coolidge for not anticipating Hoover and FDR in initiating the experiment in big government that they reacted to the Depression with, even though he acknowledges that the failures of that course have brought about a revival of Coolidge's ideas today.

Consider the arc of this paragraph:
Economists and citizens alike still debate the merits of the economic philosophy that underpinned Coolidge's policies--the modified laissez-faire system that allowed for government support for businesses that appeared to serve the general good. Until their recent revival, these ideas had stood discredited for decades; in the middle of the twentieth century, even many Republican leaders accepted the inevitability of a mixed economy. In the 1920s, however, before the spread of John Maynard Keynes's revolutionary economics--with its stress on income distribution, full employment, and stimulative spending--the alliance of government and business that Coolidge and Mellon supported enjoyed widespread legitimacy. Some observer's even contrasted Coolidge's approach with an older, rawer laissez-faire and deemed it modern and enlightened.
When we note both that Coolidge advocated a more compassionate conservatism than had earlier generations and that his ideas have returned after the failure of the innovations of his successors, it would seem more proper to credit his resistance to statist experimentation than to criticize him for not making Americans his lab rats, no? Indeed, given the reach of the governments that even his conservative inheritors have led and that the liberals ever sought to expand, we must consider the possibility that Coolidge was the last leader of a modern developed state to conscientiously eschew exercising power over people's lives. If we, rightly, celebrate George Washington as a latter-day Cincinnatus because he turned down opportunities to lay claim to power, oughtn't we spare some regard for Coolidge's resistance likewise?

Meanwhile, while Mr. Greenberg never seems to have warmed to Coolidge's flinty Yankee persona--he even finds the practical jokes that my old 8th grade teacher used to enjoy telling us about to have been little more than cruelty to the White House staff--he nonetheless has to give him his due as a decent man and honest office-holder. In that regard, he was the ideal man to take over as the various Harding scandals came to light, his personal probity and constancy acting as a balm not dissimilar to that of Gerald Ford succeeding Richard Nixon.

The most troubling part of the tale that Mr. Greenberg has to tell actually concerns a particular way in which Coolidge was very much a man of his age. Though he was not a vicious racist (like a Woodrow Wilson), he was, as were most elites of that Darwinist day, prone to a racialist view of humankind and, therefore, did not push against segregation nor resist the nativist hysteria that led to passage of a cancerously restrictive immigration law. While these policies contributed to the economic retardation of the country and to Jews not being able to flee Hitler as readily as they might otherwise have been able to do, it was the nature of the demos that immigration and segregation were not loosened until the 1960s. Coolidge deserves a portion of the blame, but not the lion's share. And he easily comes off better than a true hater, like FDR, who sent Japanese-Americans to concentration camps.

Mr. Greenberg is also more generous than earlier generations of liberal historians were when it comes time to consider whether Coolidge could have acted in such a way as to avoid the Great Depression or at least the severity of the Stock Market Crash. It is incontrovertibly the case that had the market been more regulated some of the excesses would have been tempered, but, realistically, such regulation only ever follows a crisis. Even had Coolidge been the sort of man who tended to pro-actively seek to intervene in private economic activities, there was no political demand for such intervention and, so, little likelihood he would have been able to do so. On balance then, even in a book that begins from some mistaken preconceptions, we get a portrait of Calvin Coolidge that is mostly fair to the man and his presidency. In two areas in particular it might even be said to be generous. First, Mr. Greenberg, himself a scholar of communications, gives Coolidge credit for the deft manner in which he used new media to convey his message, whether in radio addresses or news reels. Second, he traces a theme of Coolidge as someone who, almost uniquely, understood that the changes inherent in an industrialized economy could be beneficial for the country, but that the consumerism made possible by more broad-based wealth had to be tempered by traditional Anglo-American/Judeo-Christian values. Here Coolidge led not just by the personal example of Puritan parsimony but by public pronouncement as well. We've been trained not to think of him as such, but Greenberg's Coolidge is himself something of a Great Communicator. And his message, that the individual freedom that made possible the economic good times of the 20s had to be joined with personal rectitude, was a vital one. To the extent that folks failed to exercise the latter they ended up ceding the former to the Welfare State and to some considerable extent the Third Way of Thatcher, Blair, Bush, etc. might be thought of as just an effort to strike the balance between freedom and responsibility closer to where Coolidge had set it than where subsequent generations of politicians moved it.

One reads Mr. Greenberg's final assessment of his subject and can't help but be perplexed that the tone of the book hasn't been more positive:
Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values--and used nineteenth-century values to soothe the apprehensions caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.

Moreover, the ideas Coolidge stood for and the people he spoke for turned out not to be as obsolescent as they later seemed. The liberal consensus of the midcentury years, presumed by many to be permanent, was itself a creature of a particular historical moment, and even as Coolidge was fading from memory, people like Ronald Reagan embraced the ideals he personified. As big government in its time fell into disrepute, much as Coolidge's small government had a generation before, Coolidge's axioms regained favor.
We won't ever return to the kind of minimalist government that Coolidge oversaw, but at the End of History it is his sort of vision that has prevailed over that of the New Deal/Great Society crowd. Might we not say that he was one of the greatest of presidents precisely because he did not get caught up in the enthusiasms of the mere historical moment, one of the main dangers that the Founders perceived in a too democratic system, but remained faithful to the principles upon which the Republic was founded and to which it is returning?


Grade: (B+)


See also:

David Greenberg Links:

    -AUTHOR WEBSITE: David Greenberg (Assistant Professor, Journalism & Media Studies and History, Rutgers University)
    -BOOK SITE: Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg (Henry Holt)
    -Top Young Historians: David Greenberg, 37 (History News Network)
    -ARCHIVES: History Lesson Column (David Greenberg, Slate)
    ESSAY: A Massachusetts conservative: How Mitt Romney (and other GOP hopefuls) might take a cue from Calvin Coolidge, the last Bay State governor to make it to the White House (David Greenberg, February 11, 2007, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Help! Call the White House!: How the 1927 Mississippi Flood created big government. (David Greenberg, Sept. 5, 2006, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Our zero-tolerance society: A strain of vengefulness has spread through our culture, but the vilification is often out of proportion to the wrongdoing. (David Greenberg, April 22, 2007, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Nothing perks up a president like death: Most reviled commanders in chief become heroes after death (David Greenberg, January 14, 2007, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: A Few Regrets; The Goal: Admitting Failure, Without Being a Failure (David Greenberg, January 14, 2007, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: At Least He's Not Nixon (David Greenberg, December 3, 2006, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: It's a reprieve, not a pardon (David Greenberg, December 2006, Washington Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Doodle bug: Reagan drew love hearts, Kennedy was obsessed by boats and LBJ sketched three-headed aliens. The doodles of America's presidents reveal what they were really thinking about during summit meetings and in the Oval Office. (David Greenberg, 11/19/06, Sunday Times of London)
    -ESSAY: Richard Hofstadter: The pundits' favorite historian (David Greenberg, June 7, 2006,Slate)
    -ESSAY: The Legend of the Scopes Trial Science didn't really win (David Greenberg, Sept. 8, 2005, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Know Thy Allies: What Bush got wrong about Yalta (David Greenberg, May 10, 2005, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Party of one: After three terms in the Senate, Joe Lieberman may be headed for defeat--and a possible independent run. But it's not Joe Lieberman who's changed. It's partisan politics. (David Greenberg, July 30, 2006, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: The choice: As Democrats struggle to shape a post-9/11 foreign policy, two defining moments in their history, the dawn of the Cold War and the '60s antiwar movement, present stark alternatives -- and reflect a lasting rift within the party (David Greenberg, May 21, 2006, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: No deal: As the administration's recovery plan for the Gulf Coast testifies, George W. Bush is no Franklin Roosevelt. He's not even a Herbert Hoover. (David Greenberg, October 2, 2005, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Mr. Nice Guy: John Roberts is the anti-Bork -- and for Democrats, that's just the problem (David Greenberg, July 24, 2005, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: The Triumph of Anything Goes (David Greenberg, September 2004, Washington Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Blogging, as in Slogging (DAVID GREENBERG, 5/15/05, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Little Rascal: Thirty years ago, Philip Roth sent up Nixon in an overlooked satire that expanded his turf from neurosis to the American political canvas. (David Greenberg, 10/15/04, NextBook)
    -ESSAY: Daddys' Boys: JQA and W., the presidents' sons running for president. (David Greenberg, July 21, 1999, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Rating the Founding Fathers: The reputation market finds Adams up, Jefferson down, and the others holding steady. (David Greenberg, July 3, 2001, Slate)
    -ESSAY: History for Dummies (David Greenberg, 3/21/05, History News Network)
    -ESSAY: Response to My Critics (Thomas E. Woods, Jr., LewRockwell)
    -REVIEW: of WASHINGTON GONE CRAZY: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt. By Michael J. Ybarra (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of RISE OF THE VULCANS: The History of Bush's War Cabinet By James Mann (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GOVERNOR REAGAN: His Rise to Power by Lou Cannon (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LETTERS TO A YOUNG ACTIVIST by Todd Gitlin (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE CONTENDER: Richard Nixon: The Congress Years, 1946-1952 by Irwin F. Gellman (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REVOLUTIONARY LIVES: Anna Strunsky and William English Walling. By James Boylan (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of MAX LERNER: Pilgrim in the Promised Land. By Sanford Lakoff (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years by Lee Edwards (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition by Justin Watson (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Captured by History: One Man's Vision of Our Tumultuous Century by John Toland (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Road to Nowhere: The Genesis of President Clinton's Plan for Health Security by Jacob S. Hacker (David Greenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat, Bob Woodward (David Greenberg, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Everybody Knew by Richard M. Fried (David Greenberg, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina By Frank Rich (David Greenberg, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of George Herbert Walker Bush (Penguin Lives Series) By Tom Wicker (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Eugene McCarthy: The Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism by Dominic Sandbrook (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It by Alan Wolfe (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of A Matter of Opinion by Victor S. Navasky (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of More Equal Than Others: America From Nixon to the New Century by Godfrey Hodgson and Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal (David Greenberg, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of THE REHNQUIST CHOICE: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined The Supreme Court by John W. Dean (David Greenberg, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism by Haynes Johnson (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (David Greenberg, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of CHARLES W. COLSON: A Life Redeemed by Jonathan Aitken (David Greenberg, Washington Post)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (History News Network)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (American Prospect)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (New Republic)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (NPR)
    -ARCHIVES: "david greenberg" (Find Articles)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: What do Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy have in common? Aside from being U.S. Presidents, they were also prolific doodlers, says Kathleen Dunn's guest. A look at their doodles and what they say about their thoughts. Guest: David Greenberg, professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University. Co-author, "Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles, and Scrawls from the Oval Office" (Kathleen Dunn, 11/01/06, Wisconsin Public Radio)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Presidential Biography Panel with Douglas Brinkley, "Gerald Ford;" Joyce Appleby, "Thomas Jefferson;" David Greenberg, "Calvin Coolidge" (Book TV, 4/28/07)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Slate's History Book Blitz: '1776' as History and Myth: Madeleine Brand talks with Slate columnist David Greenberg about the ongoing tension among historians over how to make history accessible without compromising the facts. The discussion comes as award-winning author David McCullough releases his latest work, 1776, detailing the military strategies of both armies during the American Revolution. (Madeleine Brand, , May 18, 2005, Day to Day: NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg (John Derbyshire, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Calvin Coolidge (H. W. Brands, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Calvin Coolidge (Jeremy Lott, Washington Times)
    -REVIEW: of NIXON'S SHADOW: The History of an Image By David Greenberg (Ted Widmer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Nixon's Shadow (Jeff Greenfield, Washington Monthly)

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