Our new video clip of an interview with Amity Shlaes highlights why Calvin Coolidge was a successful leader, and conservatives can find encouragement and counsel in it.
For the challenges are daunting. Sometimes it looks as if government programs are never reduced, much less ended. The media and the academy distort the public picture of events. The government bureaucracy is entrenched. Can our ideals triumph?
As Shlaes points out, Coolidge faced huge challenges. The U.S. was just coming out of the Progressive Era and World War I, which had greatly increased the size and power of government. Liberalism, communism and socialism seemed to be ascendant. The economy was troubled. Many thought that as governor of Massachusetts, then as president, Coolidge would have to bend to the times. He didn’t, and Shlaes’ biography of him, and her talks to us at Civitas, have some lessons.
1. He was a good communicator. He used radio effectively before FDR’s fireside chats. He had a gift for the pithy quote. And he used the persona of a tight-lipped New Englander to good effect, keeping critics off-balance with his dry sense of humor.
2. At the same time, he was, obviously, not a flashy or charismatic personality. Nowadays we sometimes assume only media-friendly politicos can triumph. His example, however, reminds us that a plain-spoken but effective leader can win the trust of the American people.
3. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand. For example, Miss Shlaes says, when he was governor, the Boston police were underpaid and merited a raise. But they threatened to strike. Backing down and supporting them might have been popular in the short run. But when the police went on strike, chaos broke out on the streets. Coolidge stood firm: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” The police strike was broken, and order restored.
4. He understood government has to be governed. He didn’t despise government; he spent most of his life as an elected official. He learned how the game was played and played it well. He learned how to outwit or simply outlast big spenders in Congress. He worked hard as president, and paid close attention to the details of the budget in order to trim spending effectively. He compromised when he had to, but without undercutting the basic principles he held dear. He was on good terms with minority groups, without pandering to special interests.
5. He won. He didn’t just make speeches, he actually outmaneuvered the big spenders in Washington — who were just as prevalent than as now — and he fended off the critics, winning elections in the process.
As the political seasons move along, we should keep Coolidge’s example in mind.