NewsBusters Interview: Amity Shlaes on Coolidge, Media, and Neo-Keynesianism

The overwhelming dominance that liberal statists have over the media today is one of the biggest obstacles faced by advocates of smaller government. Invariably whenever people try to make reforms to existing systems or eliminate waste, their intentions get distorted and lied about and the reformers’ motives get impugned.

Things were not always this way, however. It was not so long ago, in fact, that many large newspapers in this country were owned and operated by right-leaning individuals. Even many of the self-described “progressives” actually also believed in balanced budgets.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, even Woodrow Wilson, despised today by many conservatives as a paragon of waste and authoritarianism, actually cut government spending. His successor, Warren Harding, also reduced spending.

But making government more efficient really took off once Calvin Coolidge came into office. He very nearly turned it into an art form, in fact.

I had the pleasure of discussing this and many other topics with author Amity Shlaes in the context of her best-selling book Coolidge, a biography of America’s 30th president.

In our conversation, I also gave Shlaes the opportunity to respond to several criticisms of her book as well as discuss some of the differences between the fiscal and monetary policy of Coolidge’s time and those policies in ours. We also talked about how Coolidge reveled in the details of budgets, something he believed was necessary if one was interested in actually reducing them.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: What inspired you to write your book and how long did it take for you to do it?

AMITY SHLAES: My preceding book, The Forgotten Man, was a history of the 1930s but when I wrote it, I realized I had no basis for, what were the 30s happening against? What had preceded them? And I discovered Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, whose ideas were to so much the opposite of the politicians of the 1930s, whether Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt.

Then I got to wondering, what had Coolidge wrought in the 20s, so Coolidge plays a small role in Forgotten Man, an interesting one, and I thought maybe he’s worth going back to and that’s what the Coolidge book is, is a look at Coolidge and his achievements.

SHEFFIELD: Ok. And how long did the process take?

SHLAES: To write a presidential biography is a major task, because everyone knows something about a president and doesn’t want to get anything wrong in their documents and archives. So this took a few years. And I was dead set on getting as much new material as I could, so we digitized archival information. We digitized for example the president’s press conferences and unpublished the full version, which are now available at the Forbes library in North Hampton. So it took two, three, four years total to write and publish Coolidge.

SHEFFIELD: Given how long the book is, some people found some irony in the fact that you were writing about a man who was known for his love of short speeches. Do you agree?

SHLAES: Oh that is so true. I like to be short, I’m a journalist. I like 800 words. Coolidge’s maximum was 200 words usually. But a presidential biography is a genre. If you do a serious presidential bio, you want to supply the reader with maximum material because otherwise you’re offending the reader. A president for many people is a serious thing and they want to know everything.

So I can think of no genre where so much is dumped in as presidential biography, not because a writer is ugly or sloppy or they can’t choose but because they want to honor the president and his relationship with the reader. You put more in there than you otherwise would were you framing your own narrative.

In the Forgotten Man book [Shlaes’s previous tome], I had a lot of liberty because I was writing a biography about the 30s but the 30s had no relationship with America, so I could pick and choose more carefully how to start each chapter. So I’m, in fact the book has done very well, we find the longer the better for presidential bio, that’s what the publishers always tell us. Sometimes we find that’s hard for radio so we make shorter versions for them because they’re moving fast, so it’s a trade-off. I think in the case of Coolidge I would have let him down had I omitted material even if I personally was not intensely interested in that material.

SHEFFIELD: Several reviewers have noted the detail in your book and even how you discuss Coolidge and pencil budgets and whatnot. And I think they missed the point. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the point of including that Coolidge was interested in such details, was that that is how you do budget cuts, actual budget cuts not just this silly ‘we’re going to have a reduction in growth.’ In order to actually understand budgets you actually have to delve into them deeply.

SHLAES: That’s right, that’s so right. Coolidge’s life is not easy. That’s why we haven’t had a big bio before. Why is it not easy? Money trials and he was a drone. He was an accountant; he was a green-eyeshade.

The single fact about Coolidge that warrants our interest today is that when he left office after 67 months in office, the federal budget was actually lower than when he came in. Not relative to GDP or qualified income it was actually lower, which today we deem an impossible task. Reagan didn’t cut the budget, Eisenhower didn’t cut the budget, now Republicans don’t cut budgets and neither do Democrats.

So how did he do that? And the answer isn’t with one brave stroke of his sword or his pen, it was incremental and there is this droning out effect to it and I was trying to capture him at work.

We quantified the number of meetings he had with his David Stockman [director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan] his OMB director, forerunner to that job who was called Herbert Lord of Maine. They would meet 50 times a year, which is a lot, usually before cabinet meetings so that Calvin Coolidge may have been better prepared to tell cabinet members, “no.”

You can say, “yes” easily when you’re not prepared but it’s hard to say, “no” easily without evidence or some kind of counter argument so there was a droning aspect to his government cutting work. There was also some theater and fun material, you slash and you veto. The veto of farm funding was one that I wanted to catch him in all his droning glory because he’s an unusual hero.

He also suffered a lot so there are a lot of downers in this book and Americans tend to like upper books you know, they like Reagan because its ‘morning in America’ with Reagan right? So I thought this was an intriguing project because I’m capturing a negative personality who did a lot of good. But you know of course dramatically in terms of writing that’s hard to do.

SHEFFIELD: You mentioned David Stockman the Reagan OMB director. Coolidge, in reading your portrayal of him, he comes off with some similarities to Mitch Daniels, who was Bush’s OMB director and later governor of Indiana. Do you see that at all?

SHLAES: Well I don’t, I try just give him for who he was. But we have, yes, I do. And I see it in a number of governors. Many American politicians know they must cut budgets or reform. Especially at the state level, it’s as if we have two Americas. The states which some do have constraints written into their constitutions or know that their financial crisis is closer or more approximate in the way California—anyway, governors seem to be less political about budget management and so do controllers. One of the things about Coolidge I heard from a lot of state controllers because he’s their quiet hero, the man who knew how to cut, even though it wasn’t popular. Or who cut alone in his office who talked about the conscience of cutting. And those controllers and governors I heard from, they are not all Republicans. Because whatever party you are, you do have a budget problem right now if you’re running a state or especially an industrial town.

SHEFFIELD: On the subject of the cuts though, now would you say that these were, let’s say marginal cuts as in rather than going off and saying we’re going to eliminate “X.”

SHLAES: Well Coolidge did both general cuts and he did marginal cuts. Actually Harding, we want to be fair, Harding cut, Wilson started to cut after a great expansion. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, Harding cut and then Coolidge cut.

Harding had cut significantly what many president would have declared victory when coming into office, Coolidge came into office in 1923 when Harding died, well we’ve cut a lot and the economy’s growing so we’re fine. ‘It’s got to be relative to GDP the government,’ that would be the modern refrain. Coolidge would have been concerned about the ratio between government and commerce, national government he called the federal government, and commerce.

Well the ratio is all that matters, many politicians would say that. Coolidge had this goal of getting down to 3 billion, that was the target that had been notional for a while and he kept at it, hacking away. They were quite close to 3 billion, they never, they got there momentarily, they hacked and hacked and hacked and the cutting Coolidge had to do following Harding was harder because so much had already been cut. And I liked that about him that he kept at the job even though the big easy ‘whack’ had already been taken.

And then, of course, the other side of it is that when the economy is prospering and the government seems under control, well that’s when politicians tend to want to spend, ‘We can be generous now, we have prosperity World War I has passed, it’s the 1920’s.’ And there you go.

And Coolidge was quite tight there, so in all he vetoed 50 times. But that was hard to do, he was a regular Isaac Stern [virtuoso violinist] of the pocket veto, a particular device which is very tough because when legislation gets a pocket veto lawmakers can’t override the president and they have to start all over and pass a new law.

So he killed the big spending coming his way and he held the line on the excess spending. You mention cuts, well in the Coolidge book there’s a poster from the period that gets an idea of the extremity of the saving culture, “Write fewer letters if you’re in government, save paper, write less with pencils.”

I believe they quantified the amount it was spending on pencils, the federal government, and it was $175,000 and Coolidge said, “Well I’ll take your stub back if you’re not using it.” He did sequester and impound and I liked that about him.

He thought if he acted moderately, if he saved, his model might teach other government employees to save, interestingly, yeah. If you live virtuously other people will follow. Quite old-fashioned but it appears to have worked.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well now of course things were quite different though. The political environment was very different in his day that things were much more inchoate as far as ideologies were. You did have people going around and calling themselves progressive but, what did Coolidge call himself? I don’t think he called himself anything, is that correct?

SHLAES: Well, he called himself a Republican, something I liked about him too. He made no bones about being a man of the party that “I go up or down with the party,” he told someone, interesting, right? But he actually did have principles and he did go against the party quite often.

The Republican Party was divided, there were progressives in the party and there were old guard and it broke out on interesting lines. The progressives were not nothing, people thought they were the political future, remember American soldiers had been in Europe where real revolutions were happening to bourgeois states.

So they came back and maybe they thought they would have a revolution too, particularly because there was no penicillin and their legs hurt. One-third of the vets were disabled subsequent to World War I and it would never get better would it? And there was no penicillin there were no wonderful new limbs that they were just developing. So the progressive movement was quite strong and stronger than any movement like Occupy Wall Street or anything like that.

In fact, they took 17% of the vote in the 1924 election, which would be enough to split everything and, more importantly they had the momentum. They seemed small but they seemed the party of the future.

In the political analysis now, you don’t just say ‘who’s bigger’ you say ‘who’s growing and who’s shrinking.’ And we tend to over emphasize that in fact, at least I think in our vanity. We say ‘oh, they’re tiny but they’re growing so they’re going to be big therefore we have to give in to them early or go along with them or sign up with them.’

Well that was the culture with the progressives, they thought they were the future and their votes were growing. Seventeen percent is really good, but as it happened, they couldn’t manage it in the Electoral College so they didn’t a lot of state electoral votes but they seemed like the future, magazines thought they were the future. But Coolidge, by the time he had gotten to the White House had an incredible skepticism of progressive proposals and vetoed them routinely.

SHEFFIELD: One of the other key differences is that in Coolidge’s time there was not nearly so much as of a national media infrastructure. Especially one that is dedicated, it seems, to growing government and to opposing those who would cut around the margins or who would reform things.

SHLAES: There was plenty of national media but the papers were more local and many of the papers were conservative. The progressive movement was hot; there was already the New Republic which was criticizing Coolidge and hating his guts.

But the local papers were numerous, far more numerous, we can’t even imagine, the papers were like blogs. They were everywhere and they tended to be more conservative, it wasn’t until the 30’s or 40’s that our print changed and moved left and progressive. So Coolidge had a lot of little papers saying nice things about him and a lot of left-wing magazines saying awful things about him.

And I think he, himself, he told Herbert Hoover not to read too much. Herbert Hoover was always worried about what people said about him. And Coolidge would say oh you take that periodical, I saw they said something negative about me so I didn’t finish the article. He had a great, a great attitude towards criticism; he didn’t let himself be rattled by it.

SHEFFIELD: There were a lot more local conservative media outlets back then, it something that the modern conservative side seems to almost basically have forgotten, why is that?

SHLAES: Well the papers changed, they changed a lot. They headed left, it became cool culturally to be left, I mean, or non-right. I think first the papers then were closer to the consumer, they needed money. Now the papers are kind of like institutions that are almost part of the government. So they’re a little sluggish in their response to markets.

And also Americans have changed, we’re more accustomed to entitlement, so it doesn’t seem strange to us. When the government or a newspaper would call for an entitlement back then you might find that likeable, we might reinforce our ideas by reading papers that also back entitlements. So then they weren’t accustomed to federal entitlements, so it didn’t hurt them when newspapers said entitlements are bad. So they didn’t have any skin in the game when the governments said get smaller, because they weren’t getting anything from the government anyways.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that’s actually an issue, the income tax was relatively new when Coolidge was president, what was his thinking about that?

SHLAES: The income tax was new and it was a class tax not a mass tax. The regular man did not pay it, that didn’t happen until Franklin Roosevelt. But it was very high; it was in the 70s. The regular man saw that income tax was in the 70’s when Coolidge and Harding came in, that it deterred business and therefore slowed hiring—they had trouble with unemployment after World War I.

So Coolidge believed that taxes ought to be low, he had a moral approach: taxes ought to be low because they’re a burden on man. There’s a wonderful YouTube clip where he makes a speech about this. And then, well, they ought to be low because big government is wrong and big national government is wrong. And there you go.

His treasury secretary took a different path, Andrew Mellon, Mellon believed that taxation was inefficient as well and that high rates brought in less revenue. And he wanted to imply what he thought was progressive what he called “scientific taxation” which is the idea that if you lower the rate you get more money.

Mellon was a business man, a magnate, one of the bigs in the railroad industry. And he’d seen if you cut the rate of the freight on trains when they passed on your railroads you might get more traffic. So once you charged what the traffic will bear—today when we talk about Walmart we say they cut the price but they made their profit up on the volume.

That was the theory and Mellon convinced Coolidge to go along with this and Harding before him and they did cut the rate and they, more or less, did get more money in the 20’s against what they expected. In addition when they cut the tax rate, the rich paid more taxes, because the rich had been hiding before in municipal bonds or just off the books.

So that was a very solid, what we would call supply-side experiment of multiple years and the data are right there in statistics of income. And I wish we learned more about it in school it’s interesting they cut the tax rate down to 25 percent, the top marginal rate. That’s lower than Reagan and they did quite well. They always had a surplus. They were swimming in money under this policy.

SHEFFIELD: Well now, Warren Harding who you mentioned earlier, Coolidge’s predecessor I think he also is very underrated in that regard as far as the recession of 1920. That’s another forgotten period of America. Can you talk about that a little bit?

SHLAES: Well I wanted to give Wilson some credit too. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates to force the recession but it wasn’t the Harding Fed. It was the Wilson Fed that did that. And that’s a very unusual policy by our modern terms. Harding, Harding sustained fiscally, Harding’s deficit was fiscal I think we could say.

SHEFFIELD: But it was a drastically different approach from the modern neo-Keynesian idea of ‘Oh well we need to spend more in order to collect more money.’

SHLAES: If you wanted the opposite policy prescription to what we have today that’s it. It is not Coolidge’s event, it really precedes him but he would have agreed with it. Coming out of World War I they thought they might have some inflation—they weren’t acknowledging we had what they call monetary overhang. Secondly, it wasn’t clear what prices were. They had unemployment, you know, they were worried about the debt. What did they do, they also were especially worried about another recession coming. What did they do? What was their policy prescription? Well, they cut the government in half and they raised interest rates dramatically. That’s what you’re supposed to do when the economy’s weak, in their eyes.

They raised interest rates several basis points which is a lot back then, basically doubling interest rates to a very high level for America. And it was a terrible recession they even called it a depression that they caused by doing this. And people suffered and Harry Truman lost his haberdashery shop. And these things happen in the depression in the early 1920s but it was so brief that no one recalls it.

So and that was their thesis: markets will find their level and price if we clear inflation and spending out of the system and it worked apparently and if you want to confront this, a great book is The Policy of the Early Twenties, because it is the complete opposite, they thought austerity was good for private growth. That is the opposite of where we are now.

SHEFFIELD: Yes, and what’s also interesting is that the notions of Keynesianism have been corrupted by their modern-day proponents. John Maynard Keynes actually thought that you should cut taxes when the economy started to go bad and yet we never hear that from the people who claim to believe in the things that he said. Do you have any thoughts about that?

SHLAES: Well people are selective Keynesians. The great sham of our economic culture is that we don’t acknowledge that the supply-siders are nephews of the Keynesians. It goes right back to Andrew Mellon of whom I spoke before. Both of them believed you can scientifically manage tax policy. So the supply-sider might say—and you can certainly see this especially in the advisers of John F. Kennedy—‘The economy’s weakening? Well we need a stimulus. We’ll take a tax cut, we prefer that to a spending stimulus.’

But it’s related, it’s stimulus either way? So in there kind of conceit that they can manage the economy by changing thing here and there, pulling strings, micromanaging, the supply-siders and the Keynesians, the people who always talk about spending, they are so related. And they were trained together, so it’s no surprise.

SHEFFIELD: I find it so ironic that the modern day neo-Keynesian loves to talk about the multiplier effect of spending but never understands that by the same principle, that also would happen with a tax cut as well.

SHLAES: But were Keynes alive today my guess is he would be angry, because his memory, if you imagine it as a picture, it has been cut apart and re-sewn up to be window dressing for government spending.

Keynes isn’t just worshipped because he was a genius even though he was very bright; he’s worshipped because he’s the excuse for government spending. He’s the intellectual justification.

But he was a complex man. Keynes criticized Roosevelt in a public letter in the later 30s Keynes wrote to Roosevelt that Roosevelt by being arbitrary was scaring off businessmen and thereby hurting the economy and it’s a famous letter. And so Keynes wasn’t quite as simple as we make him out to be today.

SHEFFIELD: I would also argue that the supply-side idea, ultimately a lot of people on the Right misunderstand that as well. Because there is the idea that there is an optimum tax rate and if you did cut below that would not receive more revenues. But a lot of people seem to miss or forget about that part.

SHLAES: That’s right. That’s the Laffer Curve, the point on the curve, after which tax cuts brings more revenue. And there’s a point on the curve at which tax cuts bring less revenue and people will fight about that.

Coolidge was not a supply-sider. In fact, he was a little bit uncomfortable with this idea of cutting rates to get more revenue because he thought you’d lose either way. If you didn’t get the money, you’d have a deficit and that was terrible. He was an old-fashioned saver, what if you did cut the rates and get more revenue (as Mellon said), well that was bad too because the opponent would spend it and use it to make government bigger.

So he was profoundly uncomfortable with this idea which he also endorsed. But because he was a good delegator he did what his treasury secretary said. And indeed they did get more revenue, so there you are. But the reason to write a book about Coolidge is that he personifies non-Keynesian, non-post-war conservative economics. He’s prewar econ which was concerned primarily with the solidity of money, with the freedom of the individual. He was a classical liberal in many areas, he really disliked interest groups, and he favored individuals. And he was also a protectionist. Coolidge was a frank protectionist. So it’s a different animal, what they were. And I think their econ has brought to life through Silent Cal, the saver. And that’s one reason he warrants a bio.

SHEFFIELD: One of the other misguided ideas that he had was with his involvement with Kellogg-Briand pact. Can you talk about that a little bit?

SHLAES: Well I really try not to say misguided for anything he did because I’m trying to depict him in his terms. I have strong views about all these things but I tried really with the Coolidge book to give it his way. His argument was the following:

‘I don’t really like arbitrary interventions in countries. I’m not happy with that, I inherited that, that’s what Theodore Roosevelt did. He was in my party but look what a mess it makes. I really hate war. I was on the little, the little motor boat waiting when the troops came back in Boston Harbor and they were miserable. World War I was gross, what a waste, what an idiotic war.’

Anyone who encountered World War I had this reaction because it was so pointless.

‘So, I’m going to believe in the rule of law and I’m going to make international laws.’ He didn’t go as far as President Wilson. But he wasn’t as isolationist as Henry Cabot Lodge who came from his state. He settled on the Kellogg-Briand pact which was a general agreement to outlaw war among nations.

And he liked it because he didn’t think it would do much harm and it might do good. The Ethiopian leader who actually became Haile Selassie I [the first emperor of Ethiopia and later the unwilling figure of worship in the Rastafarian religion] sent Coolidge a beautiful gold shield studded with precious stones as a kind of sign of tribute. And Coolidge sent back several law books. He thought the US exports should be the rule of law, justice, and honor—not arms. Was he naïve? I would say so, retrospectively. Perhaps Kellogg-Briand even facilitated Mussolini’s occupation, bullying of Ethiopia.

But there was a logic to what Coolidge was doing, particularly, I find compelling his argument that arbitrary intervention all over the place is incredibly counterproductive and arrogant. So he was fighting against Theodore Roosevelt’s culture, really.

SHEFFIELD: One of the other things that Coolidge is criticized for retrospectively—and the New York Times review of your book mentions it—is his ruling on insider trading, which the reviewer there, Jacob Heilbrunn, said led to the Great Depression. What your response to that criticism for not discussing it much?

SHLAES: Well it’s a little odd because it wasn’t the role of Washington in the 1920s to manage the economy in peace time. Both parties agreed on that, even Wilson. So there was no SEC who regulated the stock market. Well the stock market itself is a trade group, the stock exchange was in New York. There was no SEC, so insider trading was the job of the state.

And remember we have this kind of vast image that everyone bought stocks and was screwed not very many Americans, even at the height of the boom, bought stock relative to now. So Coolidge’s evaluation was probably the following and we have some little news I think we’re going to be breaking about Coolidge with the scholar George Nash who’s the premier Hoover scholar. His view was the following: ‘It would be terrible if Washington got into the business of running the stock market, it would be really terrible. But there were lesser evils including a stock market crash, they’re not pleasant but the stock market looks awfully high to me, the thing it needs to do is crash and correct itself. And then the rest of the economy will suffer for a while and be ok.’

There was no assumption on his part and there’s actually no assumption on the part of modern economists on either party that a big stock market crash necessitates a ten-year depression. Coolidge had endured six or seven significant stock market crashes and never had a ten-year depression followed either there might be one or two years. So he wasn’t prepared for that, it didn’t seem possible. He thought government intervention, if anything, would make the economy worse and cause the Great Depression, he really did think that. So, you know, to say ‘Why didn’t he intervene in insider trading?’ it was way beyond of the scope of what he would do and beyond that scope of most Democrats as well. So that’s a little bit of a way of using retrospective thinking, using today’s standards to damn someone rather than his own standards.

SHEFFIELD: One of the things you said earlier was that you were trying to present him from his own viewpoint rather than offering comments on him. You know that’s, that is a bit of a different approach compared to many presidential biographers.

SHLAES: Well, I know. The chief criticism of the Coolidge book and I’m very grateful for it, that kind of makes me smile, is that I applied today’s right-wing politics to Coolidge.

No, I applied, this book applies Coolidge’s politics to Coolidge which happened to be similar to some of those Tea Party or whatever principles. One of those is the emphasis on federalism. Coolidge was a ferocious federalist but he didn’t learn that from the Tea Party. He learned that—a lot of people around the country—the Tea Party learned it from him and the founders of the country.

So, again that’s kind of funny. I truly disagree with Coolidge’s protectionism but, that’s what he believed in. He was the president so we ought to at least figure out why he liked protectionism rather than prove how clever we are by pointing out that it was wrong. I think some authors suffer from a need try to prove that they’re clever and educated. I try not to suffer from that. I would rather sacrifice my own narrative in the exercise of writing a biography. So I’m not worried about whether I’m clever.

And Coolidge’s justification for protectionism was pretty compelling. All the time there were terrible strikes at mills in his state, Massachusetts. And workers were very angry and they wanted higher pay and they didn’t get higher pay and the employers couldn’t always afford higher pay and the employers came to the government and said ‘Well if we had no competition we could raise prices because there was no other wool or no other sweater to compete with our product.’ And the politicians said ‘Well protectionism is the lesser evil here, relative to industrial unrest here.’ And it made sense for a few years.

The abstraction that sweaters are cheaper for all when there’s free trade that we in economics love, it’s hard to conceive of when you have people being killed fighting with their employer over a wage raise, or coal not being delivered in winter because of a union strike. Well if have more protection, the employers will be able to pay more and the coal will be delivered. That was the way they would argue it.

SHEFFIELD: Last question: Calvin Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts and it’s a state that Republicans were very strong in for a long time but really are not very strong in now. Nowadays it seems that Coolidge’s philosophy is rather irrelevant to his old home. Would that ever change?

SHLAES: Most, yes. Modern day Massachusetts is grappling with reform. Massachusetts is an education sate and our education system, our universities especially, tend to be more pro-government so, Massachusetts believed what Massachusetts learned. So that’s one thing. And then also the Boston Globe which tends to be more pro intervention and government and arrogant about it, says we at the Globe, we know the way it is and are at the center of the universe and it’s not. Because Massachusetts is under this attitude, Massachusetts has slipped and slipped in many ways so that, that’s one factor.

But the real reason if you’re asking why Americans think that Coolidge is irrelevant, if they do, the real reason is right now our interest rates are so low and our economy seems kind of ok to some people again the trend looks good and therefore we can tell ourselves we don’t need to make the kind of cuts for which he stood.

But when our interest rates go up as they did in the 70s and 80s, all of a sudden we’ll be looking for our Margaret Thatcher, a person like Coolidge and even Massachusetts will look. You know, a few years down the line, the states will get a little more desperate and they’ll look. So I have a lot of faith in Massachusetts, Coolidge gave a speech called, “Have Faith in Massachusetts,” and I do too. There’ll be more political diversity there in the future if only because their financial strength.

SHEFFIELD: Part of that might be putting the ideas out there and not wrapping them in ideological connotations. That might be another thing that perhaps conservatives can learn from Coolidge. Do you think so?

SHLAES: Yes. He never, it’s very hard to find him attacking people and he was explicit about that. He sought common ground when he could, there’s times when there’s no common ground, one is the police strike which is the public sector story where he was quite tough but he sought common ground.

And I was looking for mean statements by Coolidge about other people such as Louis Brandeis who was really detested by the Old Guard as this great reforming lawyer and later justice. And the only thing I could find Coolidge saying about Brandeis who laws he did not share, was a note saying Brandeis was not “safe” to a friend, maybe a political colleague, but not in public.

He believed our whole culture would improve when we talked about ideas rather than people in public. And he detested the sort of internecine fighting. Henry Cabot Lodge, the senior senator from Massachusetts tried to lure him in to fight and I think Coolidge sometimes lost because he didn’t want to tangle with Lodge, because, so he so abhorred political, public fighting.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Thank you for joining us today, Amity Shlaes. Your book, Coolidge, is worth checking out. I hope readers get a chance to look at it if they haven’t heard of it already.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013