Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Calvin Coolidge: That Vision Thing

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge by Charles Syndey Hopinknson, 1932. PD.

Amity Shlaes new book, Coolidge, has proven that it is vital to examine all the presidents, even the obscure, to fully appreciate historical developments we see today.  Shlaes asks why such a popular president in his own time became largely forgotten.  She argues two main points: his personality was not a big one, especially compared to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, and Coolidge’s presidency focused on economics, mainly reducing the federal debt after World War One.  There are other factors, as well.  Coolidge’s reputation got trashed when the Warren Harding administration faced many scandals and people blamed both Coolidge and Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression.  People wanted to forget that past. In his book, Calvin Coolidge, David Greenberg adds another important element to this discussion: Coolidge did not have much of a vision for his presidency.  Robert Sobel, in his 1998 book, Coolidge: An American Enigma, also argues that the popular perception of Coolidge is as an accidental president, someone who had no agenda. Coolidge was buried under a new active presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt and was fully realized by his cousin Franklin. 

Sobel writes that Coolidge believed in a “passive executive branch” (pp. 14).  For Shlaes, “Coolidge is our great refrainer” (pp. 9).  For modern readers, this is hard to comprehend, a president who does not act or waits to act.  This usually means trouble for a modern president. 

Shlaes correctly draws our attention to the fact that Coolidge did do something. Coolidge wanted to balance the books.  He represented fiscal discipline in an environment where people around him, mainly members of Congress and Hoover, wanted to spend federal dollars.  Yes, you read correctly, Herbert Hoover.  Near the end of his term, Coolidge did not favor Hoover, because he worried that Hoover would ruin his budget legacy by spending money on the Colorado River dam project, among others.  By the time Coolidge left office in 1929, he had managed to cut over $10 billion of debt in eight years.  To do this, he had daily meetings with his budget director, Herbert Lord, held the line against Congressional spending, and spent a large amount of political capital on tax reductions with the help of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.