Ask people at random about Calvin Coolidge, and some will know he was president in the 1920’s. Very few will know very much about him.
If we could somehow resurrect the Calvin Coolidge of 1926 or thereabouts and bring him to the present political scene, we would have a most perfect opposite for Barack Obama. A lot of smart kids can name all the presidents by rote, but few children and perhaps even fewer adults know much about “Silent Cal.” He was one of the trio of Republican presidents who succeeded Wilson after World War I ended: Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Harding died after two and a half years in office, and Vice President Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, then was re-elected in 1924 and served that term. Hoover took over in time to preside over the stock market crash of 1929, which brought FDR into office in 1933.
People in their late nineties or more may remember Coolidge, but that’s a diminishing group. There were all sorts of problems for the federal government after the Great War ended: huge (for the time) national debt; annual deficits; high taxes; and a large body of veterans who needed to be re-assimilated into the work force, many of them were wounded and needed long term care.
Calvin Coolidge today would be the poster boy for the Tea Party. He was almost fanatical about cutting government spending, and actually introduced the practice of annual budgeting by the president. At the same time, he induced a Republican congress to cut taxes three times, in 1924, 1926, and 1928, and the revenue jumped and became a surplus. Thus he proved that reduced tax rates can make the economy run faster and produce more revenue. He reduced the federal deficit by 36 per cent during his time in office. Wow! He also removed many regulations, believing that the private sector runs better without them.
Cal was good at saying ‘no’ and using the veto. There was great pressure on him from Congress and others to increase government spending. Veterans wanted bonuses and needed a hospital system. Farmers were hurting and wanted subsidies. The military wanted more airplanes, tanks, and battleships. There were huge floods in the twenties which created a need for disaster assistance. He had a mixed record on these issues: he created what is now the Veteran’s Administration, he allowed the military to decline, he resisted subsidies and disaster relief.
He finished Harding’s term without designating a new vice president. His first speech to Congress in December 1923 was the first presidential speech to be broadcast to the nation over the new medium of radio. He promised to carry on for Harding, and kept his cabinet intact at first. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1924, partly because there was a 3rd party, the Progressives. But Coolidge got 54% of the popular vote. Charles Dawes was his Vice President, chosen by the party. They didn’t get along well.
He was aided immensely by his charming first lady, Grace Coolidge, who was outgoing where Cal was reserved. If you follow the link to wikipedia’s article on her, and page down to her official White House portrait, you will see beauty that may never be excelled by any first lady.
His Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew W. Mellon, was picked by Harding and served until ousted by FDR in 1932. Mellon and Coolidge thought alike and worked together a great deal. Mellon, a financial prodigy, was one of the first to realize that cutting taxes can speed the national economy and increase federal revenue. Liberals who know history (very few, indeed) hate him, as they do Coolidge, even today. Here’s a Mellon quote, taken from the wikipedia article on Mellon: The history of taxation shows that taxes which are inherently excessive are not paid. The high rates inevitably put pressure upon the taxpayer to withdraw his capital from productive business.
Mellon’s book, Taxation, the People’s Business, published in 1924, should be required reading for every politician of today.
In my view, Coolidge may have gone a bit overboard on frugality, but I believe he and Mellon were great American heroes, the perfect people for their time. I wish we could find their equals today, and place them into the leadership of this country.
To place things in a bit of perspective, President Coolidge was trying to cut the annual federal budget in 1924 to three billion dollars a year. It was a bit more, but less than four. That amount might cover eight hour’s worth of the projected budget of 2013.