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Don Robinson: Taking the true measure of Calvin Coolidge

Traditionally presidents, and most legal scholars, have held that documents created by a president and his staff were his personal property and his to take when he left office. In 1955, Congress enacted a law encouraging presidents to donate the papers of their administration to libraries erected by private and other non-federal funds. To ensure their preservation and availability, supervision was given to the National Archives.

In 1978, Allen Weinstein, then National Archivist (formerly a professor of history at Smith College), persuaded Congress to amend the law. Henceforth each president would donate the records of his administration to an institution managed under the supervision of the Archives. There are now 13 such institutions, one for each president since Herbert Hoover. Coolidge is the last president not to have an official “presidential library.” The collection at Forbes Library is independent of the National Archives.

As the libraries devoted to FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan demonstrate, these institutions are celebratory as well as archival. As the curator of the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, remarked last week, it would be unfair to expect them to be otherwise. They present the perspective of the president and his administration.

Thus, in Dallas, there is a “Decision Points Theater,” where groups of 20 visitors are invited to consider one of four “situations” President Bush confronted in office. Gadgetry throughout the Bush Museum is impressive and integral to its meaning and purpose. Compare it to a film of President Coolidge giving a four-minute speech “on the White House grounds.” It is described as the first recording of a presidential speech from the White House. Coolidge reads from notes in his hand. He looks uncomfortable. His performance is awkward but oddly powerful.

Coolidge’s historical reputation is not great. In the rankings by presidential historians, he typically comes in the mid-to-upper 20s, among the 40 or so presidents in a given survey. He is remembered as the hapless “Puritan in Babylon,” little more than a stooge of Andrew Mellon, his Treasury secretary.

But Coolidge was nobody’s fool. He had done his apprenticeship in the rough-and-tumble arena of Northampton city politics, first as a city councilor, then as city solicitor and clerk of courts. In 1905, he was defeated for a seat on the School Board (the only electoral defeat he ever suffered). After representing Northampton in the lower house of the state Legislature for two terms, he returned home in 1910 to serve two terms as mayor. Returning to Boston, he served four terms in the state Senate, the final term as its president, then three years as lieutenant governor. In 1918, at the age of 46, he was elected governor.

His rise to national prominence and his pre-presidential record are a little like Jimmy Carter’s. Both men prevailed in national politics as the antidote to a disgraced predecessor (Harding and Nixon). Coolidge combined the political virtues of Nixon’s two successors, Gerald Ford and Carter. He was naturally folksy, comfortable in his own skin, like Ford; but he was also incorruptible, like Carter.

Coolidge’s reputation is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, but it comes at a price. He has become the champion of the Paul Ryan/Ayn Rand wing of the Republican Party.

Amity Shlaes has written two important books that celebrate his presidency. The first, “The Forgotten Man,” published in 2007, is a formidable revisionist history of the Great Depression. It strongly counters the notion that the policies of the 1920s (Coolidge’s and Hoover’s) drove the U.S. economy into a ditch from which Roosevelt’s buoyant leadership and energy rescued us. Shlaes, a former reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal, is highly critical of Roosevelt’s grandiose, reckless and, she believes, ineffective experiments in public policy. She argues that Coolidge’s confidence in the energies of a free people, his reliance on market forces and his preference for limited government offered a far superior approach to the economic crisis of the 1930s.

Coolidge is a major, but not the central character of “The Forgotten Man.” Now Shlaes has written a full biography titled “Coolidge.” It is a kind of sequel, powerfully written and full of interest. My favorite book about Coolidge, however, is one written just as he assumed the presidency. Published in 1924, it is called “The Preparation of Calvin Coolidge.” The author, Robert A. Woods, was a fellow Amherst College graduate of the president and an Episcopal pastor who knew him well. This is the book to read if you are interested in the development of Coolidge’s style and character. It is highly personal; it presents a detailed and convincing portrait of how Coolidge gained the attention and won the admiration of his neighbors and a growing circle of acquaintances, up to the national level.

If Coolidge is further memorialized in Northampton, as some have proposed, it should be for his old-fashioned virtues, not because of his usefulness for current political purposes.

There was a rock-hard integrity and simplicity to the man that makes the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers ironic. At least here in Northampton, it is worth an effort to get the true measure of the man.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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