Sunday, November 28, 2010

For the love of Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge is deservedly one of our lest-known Presidents. But David Greenberg has provided a good brief sketch of his Presidency and how it is mythologized by Republicans today in Calvin Coolidge: Right-wing rock star? Salon 11/28/2010.

Coolidge became President in 1923 upon the death of his predecessor Warren Harding, who presided over the most corrupt Presidential administration in US history prior to Richard Nixon's - although the Cheney-Bush Administration made Harding's look like a study in scrupulous honesty. Samuel Eliot Morison in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) described Coolidge as a "dour, abstemious, and unimaginative figure" who nevertheless became one of the most popular American Presidents by presiding over the prosperous Roaring 20s, which his Administration helped fuel by protective tariffs (heresy now to the cult of globalization) and generous subsidies to some corporations. His tax policies were particularly solicitous to the wealthy in lowering their taxes while they reaped the greatest material benefits from the prosperity of that decade.

His Administration's generosity of spirit was less when it came to farmers, for whom the Great Depression had already begun during the Coolidge Administration. He had distinguished himself as Governor of Massachusetts by his bitter anti-labor stance. As Morison puts it, Coolidge's dubious success in killing the McNary-Haugen Farm Bill of 1927-28 rendered farmers "far more vulnerable than they need have been to the Great Depression." Greenberg's piece points out that this combination of solicitous care for the wealth and for corporations looking for government handouts with indifference and even hostility to the needs of ordinary citizens is at the core of Coolidge's appeal as an icon for today's Republicans.

Morison called him a "mean, thin-lipped little man, a respectable mediocrity" who "lived parsimoniously but admired men of wealth, and his political principles were those current in 1901." One of Sinclair Lewis' novels was called The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen (1928); it takes an entertaining but critical look at the philistine outlook on life that Coolidge and his Administration epitomized.

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