BRIAN LAMB: Amity Shlaes, author of Coolidge, when did you first get interested in this president?
AMITY SHLAES: I was writing my recent book, ”Forgotten Man,” and everything was broken. ”Forgotten Man” is a book about the 30’s and how the economy was broken and I thought, what happened before. And, there was a period when it was fixed, and that was the 20s, and that was Calvin Coolidge so I thought, this is the prequel. I’ve got to go back and figure out what went right in the 20’s.
LAMB: Before you do that, talk about him. I mean, if you read about him today, I guess the first question I’d ask, could he be elected president today?
SHLAES: I think so. That’s really the challenge of the book, whether we can choose someone who’s as principled as he is as president. He did not believe Coolidge, who was president from ’23 to ’29, that perception is reality. He thought principle was reality. Reality is reality. So, the challenge for us often is, do we just have to have someone who’s good-looking and speaks well, good salesman, or can we have someone who’s got principles. And, I do think we can. We kind of deceive ourselves, generally, that we need looks alone, perception alone.
LAMB: Who did he put around himself?
SHLAES: Very important question. Coolidge came into office from being vice president. Unfortunately, the president, Warren Harding, died, so there’s a cabinet there and some of them are compromised. We remember Harding was a period of scandal, so do you keep them? And, the modern position might be our political advisors would say, ”Clean sweep,” right? Broom out; get them out, so you will have the appearance of integrity. But, Coolidge also prized respect for Harding. Those people weren’t condemned yet, innocent until proven guilty and continuity for the sake of the people and market. So, he kept the cabinet for awhile. Eventually, some people left. Daugherty, you see the secretary of the interior left, the figures who were compromised in the Harding administration eventually left, and Coolidge did have an investigation. He named a bi-partisan team, that’s very modern, to look into corruption in the Harding administration. But, he thought first of continuity when he became president at that moment in August 1923.
LAMB: Who was his secretary of the treasury?
SHLAES: Well, that was the same guy. That would be Andrew Mellon who was his and Harding’s before him and Hoover’s after. Mellon was a great figure like Alan Greenspan today or Ben Bernanke, though, he was treasury secretary. It was said of Mellon that three presidents served under him.
LAMB: How does that relate to the Mellon name that we know now, the Mellon Bank?
SHLAES: Who was Mellon? Mellon was a very wealthy man. He made much of his money. He created an empire in Pittsburgh of steel, aluminum, was Mellon’s Mellon was also, what we might call, a venture capitalist. He would give a man money if a man had a good idea, see what happened, maybe in the end sell his share when the man succeeded, but sometimes he butted in, sometimes he didn’t to the process. But, he loved new ideas. He created a whole institute to generate patents, very production-oriented, not just what we say, a rent seeker, not just someone who bought what other people had and held on to it like a monopoly. A creator of wealth. So, Mellon came to this job, the job of treasury secretary, with a wealth of experience from the private sector and a few convictions, and his best partner among the presidents, I believe, David Cannadine, the Mellon biographer would say this too, it was Coolidge who understood Mellon. One thing we have to admire about Coolidge is he knew how to work with other men. It wasn’t all about Calvin.
LAMB: He died at age 60, right after he got of the presidency. What happened, what was his health like?
SHLAES: Well, a lot of them did. I think we’re blessed with the angiogram. We’re blessed with statins, with Crestor. Men now know exactly how well their heart is doing. And, it’s pretty clear he had something cardio going on. You see men dying all the time in politics and especially in the presidency. Then Harding died, essentially, from Coolidge said Harding was tired out, wore himself out. His predecessor, Wilson, had that terrible stroke and never really recovered. So, the two preceding presidents had been killed. Coolidge was proud that he made it. I don’t think he was aware of the extent to which his heart was bad until the end, that something was really wrong.
LAMB: We’ve got some video that was spoken by Calvin Coolidge at the White House. It may have been the first video of the president speaking. Let’s watch so people can see what he sounded like and looked like.
CALVIN COOLIDGE: I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty.
LAMB: Again, forget the principles that he had but no teleprompter, reading off a piece of paper, somewhat halting, high voice, all that could do you think he could make it in the television age?
SHLAES: I do. I do. He actually, they wondered that about him then, of course, the new technology then was radio, and it turned out radio was a blessing for him because he had a little bit of wire in his voice, they said, and it cut through apparently a very good radio voice. He thought he was on radio there, and he read as though on the radio, but his personality comes through. I don’t think we should condemn people if they don’t appear to us telegenic.
LAMB: The chapter that I thought was most illuminating about him as a person was, and I’m not sure that you pronounce it this way, ”The Ouden” What is that chapter?
SHLAES: This is when you get to college, the outsider, that’s Greek. He happened to go to Amherst college, very interesting college. It had a motto, ”Let them illuminate the earth.” Basically, a college for ministers or future ministers, generally Congregationalists; although, there were other denominations there in Massachusetts, and Coolidge went down there and, at the time he went down there, it was a Greek school. By Greek, I mean, it had a lot of fraternities. Fraternities were all over and most kids were in them. And, what’s interesting about Calvin, and this is all the way through his life true, Brian. He didn’t seem like he was going to make it. He got there. He kind of thought he should be in a fraternity. He wrote his father, we have a letter, saying something about that before he got there, and then he wasn’t chosen. So, imagine being in a very Greek school with boys richer than you and being kind of shy, he wasn’t chosen and, I think this is partly we think of this when see our families, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be chosen. He wasn’t sure he wanted to give up that much of himself to a group. But, it’s always nice to be asked, and he was quite disappointed, I think, when he wasn’t asked, and there’s an interesting story there. There was another boy at Amherst, at that time, called Dwight, who was actually poorer than Calvin, maybe shorter and had a little physical disability, but Dwight was a happy boy and much-loved and went into a fraternity and Coolidge knew him. They ate lunch together once in awhile and, apparently, Dwight black-balled Coolidge at one point for a fraternity when Coolidge was going to come in. We have a letter that says that Dwight said, ”Not him, I’ll take the other one.”Well, Dwight was one of those friends you have who thinks it over and changes his mind, and has great regret. And, Dwight decided he had under-rated Calvin, and that Dwight was Dwight Morrow, who then went to law school, became a big partner at JP Morgan, in fact, when JP Morgan was kind of down. Dwight liked underdogs and, eventually, Calvin as president, sent Dwight to patch it up with Mexico in a terrible time. Dwight was our representative, our ambassador there, and that he had a daughter called Anne Morrow, and Coolidge sent down Charles Lindbergh to cheer up the Mexicans, to bring some comedy to the place, and that is how Anne Morrow Lindbergh became Anne Morrow Lindbergh. So, a lot of history came out of that very sort of understated, a little bit sad beginning of undergraduate life at Amherst for Calvin Coolidge.
LAMB: But, when you read about him and his personality, it defies logic that this man could end up being president of the United States because of his, would you call it an oddball, called quirky...
LAMB: Silent Cal. How silent was he?
SHLAES: He was very silent. We have many stories. You know, there’s a famous story of Calvin where a lady said, ”I bet I could get you to say more than two words at this dinner Mr. Sir,” maybe he was vice president. Grace Coolidge told the story, his wife, and he said, ”You lose.”
LAMB: Was that Dorothy Parker?
SHLAES: I don’t think so, but it was told, Dorothy Parker said when he died, ”Who could tell,” a very mean comment, and I want to say, if you go back and look at Coolidge, he was a conservative hero and then his tax rate was a gold standard tax rate that we saw on the video, 25 percent was what he got the top rate down to, and he fought like crazy.
It started, remember, with Wilson in the 70s, so that was an epic battle. And, when you go look at what all the socialites said about Coolidge in Washington, how cold he was, he wouldn’t with them, you want to remember that they were probably also from families that endorsed different policies, especially Alice Roosevelt Longworth whose father had a different model of president. TR was a ”Let’s get ’em, go active, bully pulpit presidency,” and here was Coolidge, prissy and cold and not giving out favors. So, she said he looked as though he’d been weaned on a pickle. Coolidge’s silence was culture. He was from New England. Farmers don’t talk a lot or wave their arms about because a cow might kick them, you know, if and he was of temperament. He was a shy person, but it also had a political purpose. He knew that if he didn’t talk a lot, people would stop talking and, of course, a presidential or political leader is constantly bombarded with requests. And, his silence was his way of not giving in to special interests, and he articulated that quite explicitly, Brian.
LAMB: Go back, again, to the college experience, though, you say he liked to he learned to like to speak. How did that come in and did he ever get into a fraternity?
SHLAES: He got in a fraternity at the end, at the very end of his senior year, and it was a new one on campus. So, and he was proud, he wrote his father, the letters to his father are beautiful, the Calvin Coolidge memorial foundation published them, and they’re hard to find. I hope we can publish them again. They’re fabulous. He wrote his father, ”You know I have to have a pin.” All through his life, you see him writing his father who wasn’t at all rich but wasn’t totally poor and was an important person in his little town. ”I need this, I need the pin, I need the cane, I need the overcoat, I need the so I need this.” But it was very late, last term basically, senior year, that Coolidge got in. I think his classmates, Amherst is a small college now and it was then, recognized something in him when he began to speak. He was thoughtful and, we want to say, also, this is interesting about their education, there was a great emphasis on rhetoric in education, so the kids had to speak a lot, and they began to hear him. And he had a teacher he loved very much, Charles Garman, a lot of us liked Garman and saw and Dwight liked Garman, Dwight Morrow. He began to have friends and feel he was in a club, the club of this particular lecturer called Garman, lecture and seminar, and he spoke in class, and the other boy said, ”Wait a minute, it’s a new man. We don’t recognize him. Wait a minute. How come we didn’t know you freshman year or sophomore year. We messed up,” in that wonderful way you can re-evaluate someone in a classroom.
LAMB: I got a picture that I want to show you. It’s not in your book. This is a picture from the courthouse yard area in North Hampton, New Hampshire where he lived. It’s on the screen there, and this has every job he’s ever had on that statue. Have you ever seen that?
SHLAES: I don’t think so.
LAMB: I want to read you, though, so we can go back and talk about this because I still want to know why you think he got all this. He was born in Plymouth, Vermont, in 1872, on this statue is what it says, graduated from Amherst 1895, admitted to Massachusetts bar in ’97. In ’98, 1898, city counselor, North Hampton; 1901, city solicitor, North Hampton; 1906, state representative, Massachusetts; 1909, mayor of the city of North Hampton; 1911, state senator, Massachusetts; 1913, president of Massachusetts senate; 1915 to ’17, lieutenant governor; then governor of the state of Massachusetts in ’18; and went on to be vice president in 1921; and, president in ’23. How is it I’ve never seen anything quite like that, where somebody’s had that many jobs leading up to president.
SHLAES: And he almost never lost.
LAMB: How did he do it?
SHLAES: He told someone, ”You have a hobby. My hobby is politics. Running for office is my hobby.” One thing was the Republican party and the Democratic party were different, and there was a path if you helped the others they helped you. He was in the party. It was a club. It wasn’t to be entirely looked down upon, the way we learned in school, even then the progressives said he climbed the greasy pole of Massachusetts politics. It wasn’t just that. There was some good in the party. The party trains you. It helps you work efficiently, but it’s also his incredible personal perseverance, and that’s what I try to get at in his the chapter about his time in North Hampton, Massachusetts. That was the county seat. So, after college, he looked around. He couldn’t really afford law school. He kind of bugged his father about it. They couldn’t really afford it, so he went to read the law, and the way they did then, you could clerk and pass the bar that way with a firm of two men who liked Amherst and who had been there and were important lawyers in the town, running for office themselves, and he looked around and learned about his county seat.”Why don’t I just try this,” whereas Dwight Morrow, his friend, went to law school at Columbia and then went to an important, sort of Wall Street bank, a law firm and then a bank, so this was the old way, the Thomas Jefferson kind of way of serving in the country, don’t be a city doll. That’s one of the things they read in college. And, he was good to the party. The party was good to him. He learned pragmatism. He practiced law on-and-off the whole time. He was very careful not to be corrupt. One of the issues of his youth and, remember, his youth is the progressive Republican party, so he’s looking at it, and you can see a progressive record in Coolidge, whether he’s a state lawmaker, ”Let’s do this about milk,” or he worked on busting trusts in theaters, if you can imagine. They saw trusts everywhere in the progressive era, and the hero of that era was Theodore Roosevelt, so he’s thinking, ”Is this a good policy or not,” what progressives do, hate the big, fight the big, reform government and clean it up. Well, he kind of liked that part, and he certainly had to work in it because he was often assigned to clean up government, to prune, to shut down offices. But he’s evaluating this the whole time. I want to mention that he had a mentor who was also silent. I didn’t know this until I began to research in Massachusetts at the Forbes Library where much of his material is. That was called W. Murray Crane, as a senator, Senator Crane who helped TR with coal strikes. Crane was of the Crane paper company, so he was a business man, and the Crane paper company, there’s a thing we used to call the government plant, printed the dollar. So, in a very interesting way, Crane knew about the US economy, through the dollar, through how much he printed, and Crane, too, was silent, rarely spoke. He was the western Massachusetts leader versus the Boston leader in Massachusetts’ politics. And that was Coolidge’s mentor.
LAMB: How much of the crash of ’29, 1929, could be blamed on Coolidge? He left in what, March...
SHLAES: He left in March of ’29. So, you imagine the stock market, we look at this at NYU Stern where I teach, the stock market was 100 for a long time. Then, it went up to 200, very high, Coolidge had seen a lot of recessions. It doubled, that’s sort of like our 90’s, for example, or also after wars with Napoleon if you look in past, you see incredible doublings. Then it went to 381 that would be September ’29. Coolidge didn’t approve of that, he’d seen a lot of recessions. He’d spent a lot of his life with the stock market at 100 or below. He knew, every sinew in him, knew that was wrong. He just didn’t believe it was the job of the chief executive to intervene. It was the state of New York, where the New York Stock Exchange was, where the Dow would be, the Dow Jones Industrial. He knew the owner of the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Clarence Barron, but he didn’t think the president or the treasury secretary was really in charge of that. Remember, the Fed was also young, so he looked into it, there’s a record of him looking into it. Another Amherst man was Charles Merrill, who founded what we would call Merrill Lynch, and Merrill went to see him and they talked about it, and Coolidge was terrified because he was so conservative and he knew what a crash was, but he didn’t see it as the president’s role and neither did Merrill. That would be a state authority. I don’t think, you know, another factor in that period was what Fed policy was, and we all know Benjamin Strong, the great fed leader died, and another Fed head came and maybe the Fed was too loose and that’s an important discussion, but I do not blame this on Coolidge in the least. One of the important factors you always want to look at is, was the growth in the 20’s real or, The Great Gatsby is coming out now, was it all champagne and a lie. The 20’s growth was real. Most of it was real. The stock market went too high and people shouldn’t have bought a margin, but it was not a lie of a decade which is something that we learned in school. That must be revised, and this is an effort to do that revision, to expose the true 20’s.
LAMB: Where did you first start being interested in Calvin Coolidge, do you remember the time?
SHLAES: Just in the ”Forgotten Man,” it’s about how the forgotten man, the history of the 1930s that I wrote. It’s about how the government came in starting with Herbert Hoover and messed it up. Messed up something good, you know, beyond all the things Hoover did, bigger government was Hoover and then Roosevelt followed with even bigger and more arbitrary government. So I thought, what was it that they messed up? And, I had to go back and write a new beginning to ”Forgotten Man,” and show what it was that was lost in order to show the extent of the loss. And I thought, wow, this is very interesting. The economics of the 20’s that we don’t discuss that much, we kind of think they were historians tend to depict them as a lie, Great Gatsby, prohibition, people untrue. Economists tend to say, ”Wow, that growth is interesting and real, most of it,” and we talk about, for example, RCA, Radio Corp was described in some of the books, ”the crash” of the stock as a big lie, just a bubble. But Radio Corp had an interesting invention on its mind, what we would now call television that did turn out to be profitable much later. So, we look in economics, sometimes markets over-shoot when they’re anticipating productivity gains. The markets of the 20’s were really interesting looking at it from the point of view of the people. The government, the single thing that Coolidge did that we want to remember is, when he left office, the budget was lower than when he came in. That’s the story for us now in a period where we’re concerned, ”Well, how did he do that?” The economy grew a lot, maybe more than 3 percent sometimes. Unemployment was below 5 percent. The budget was balanced due to his own parsimony, how’d he manage, though, to make the budget go lower, and how did that help the economy? A lot because he got the government out of the way of the economy, very foreign to the way we talk about the economy now and that fascinated me ...
LAMB: Do you remember how big the budget was then?
SHLAES: Well, the number it depends how you count it, but the way he counted it was about $3 billion. See what I’m saying and then it would be less than 5 percent of the US economy, and he was going to get it down to $3 billion, and that was his holy grail, and he had and the reason this book is so long is the middle section of the book is about his effort with another New Englander, who was General Lord from Maine to cut the budget. They didn’t just cut the tax rates, they cut the budget and this is different from our modern supply siders who tend to put the tax rates first. Coolidge always twinned them and you’ll see a photo somewhere of two lion cubs he had, someone gave him two lion cubs, he said, you can’t just cut taxes, you have to cut budget. And, those lion cubs were named, Budget Bureau and Tax Reduction.
LAMB: Where did they reside?
SHLAES: They resided in the zoo. They sent them to Coolidge just loved animals, but they sent a lot of them to the zoo.
LAMB: We’ll come back to Calvin Coolidge in a minute, but let’s go back to the Amity Shlaes’ story. Where did you grow up?
SHLAES: I’m from Chicago.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
SHLAES: I went to Yale College.
LAMB: When you first came to us in, I think, 1990 or so you appeared on this network, you were back from Germany. How long did you spend in Germany?
SHLAES: I spent a few years in Germany. I, fortunately, had a fellowship after college in Germany and got to do some journalism and then I joined the Wall Street Journal. You know, I’m interested in Germany now, too. I’m interested in east Europe, what we used to call east Europe, and the future of democracy and freedom there, and all that they’ve achieved and what happened. So, my first work was on Germany because I had studied German, and I worked as a journalist and wrote a book about Germany, ”The Empire Within,” about Germans’ conception of who they were around the time of German unification.
LAMB: I want to show you, yourself.
SHLAES: Oh well that’s not very kind to do ...
LAMB: In 1993, twenty-eight years ago, here you are.
SHLAES: I think the country will do just fine. Right now, people say that it’ll be a big curve after reunification because of all the troubles that they have, and I’d say, they’re going to be at the bottom of the curve this year. And, within 5, maybe 10 years, Germany will have consolidated, it will be a stronger country for the reunification, but they are going through a true recession now.
LAMB: How how did you do then?
SHLAES: They did fine. They did better than we thought. I’m wondering now if Germany will come out of the Euro. Germany is setting the model for future economy. Germany’s being like Calvin Coolidge because Germany is the saver country of Europe. The question is, how much can it do to save Greece, to help the spenders.
LAMB: From that time, 1990, in that era, your life has changed dramatically. You dedicate this book to Eli, Theo, Flora and Helen. Who are they?
SHLAES: Those are my four children, my four children with my husband, Seth Lipsky, the journalist and editor. Our oldest son goes to the University of Texas, our second son is a cadet at Westpoint. We have a daughter, Flora, who is in high school, and Helen is in, let’s see, sixth grade.
LAMB: Now, all through this period, you’ve been fairly visible working.
SHLAES: That’s right. I’m a columnist.
LAMB: Where do you write?
SHLAES: I write for Bloomberg.
LAMB: And how often?
SHLAES: It’s a regular column. I’d say it’s less regular now because of various bumps, but I’ve been a columnist for 10 years, before that, with the Financial Times.
LAMB: Council on Foreign Relations, are you still with them?
SHLAES: I am not with them, no, I was a fellow in political economy there or in economic history, I think, for years, and I’ve recently moved over to a new foundation, President Bush 43’s foundation which is going to be wonderful. I’m interested in presidential history now. President Bush is a wonderful man, a great leader, and a Republican president with an enormous archive attached at the new George W. Bush Center in Dallas. So, I like to research, I really like Coolidge’s history and want to help it, and I wanted to learn a bit at a presidential center and to work on economics. I am in a program called the ”4 Percent Growth Program,” which is about economic growth. Coolidge had it, but what’s that mystery, what was it. Let’s think about it, and the 4 percent growth project looks at different ways you can get stronger growth. We all know that stronger growth makes everything easier including, of course, the entitlement problem.
LAMB: Do you still teach at New York University?
SHLAES: I do, yes.
LAMB: What do you teach?
SHLAES: I teach, actually, the ”Forgotten Man,” in the 1930’s, the economics of the 1930’s, which are very controversial, so that’s fun. Is it right, is it wrong, you know.
LAMB: So if we followed you around the last few years studying Calvin Coolidge, where would we find you? Would...
SHLAES: That’s important to say, I’m a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation which is a great entity, and if you want to know Coolidge, you go to Plymouth Notch where...
SHLAES: Where he’s from, Vermont. It’s a beautiful village, well preserved, the foundation is there, the state is there. They have a state archivist, Mr. Jenny. We have our own foundation there where we do some education. We have some material and, in fact, this summer with the Bush Center, we’re hosting a high school economic debate, how perfect for Coolidge around the time that’s the anniversary of his midnight swearing in by his father in early August. So, a lot of young debaters will come from a Dartmouth clinic over and debate at the Coolidge place. Once you’ve been to Plymouth Notch, you see how simple his background was. His father rode him down the road ten miles, bumpy roads, snow, freezing sleighs to get him to high school and, what he overcame to become president. I want to mention some other Coolidge places, though, beyond the Forbe’s Library in North Hampton, Massachusetts which has been a great partner for me and helped me. There is also the Vermont Archive in Barre, Vermont, where many of the Coolidge family papers can be found, well taken care of, I encourage you to visit there too, to any Coolidge scholar.
LAMB: I want to ask you a question about something in the acknowledgments and what you think Calvin Coolidge who was so frugal personally, would think you got a grant from the National Endowment for the humanities.
SHLAES: Oh, he would be ambivalent about that. I mean, you can see the ambi he didn’t really like federal money to be spent on culture. Once in awhile, he would do it, and you see that in his own, President Coolidge doesn’t have a presidential library with a staff, funded by Washington, the way President Roosevelt would have or President Hoover would have, or that Presidents Bush have. He was old-time. He thought it’s a wonderful story, also, of love for his wife. At that time, he thought a president should raise his own money for himself, all of it, all of it. And he loved his wife very much, Grace, and she sacrificed a lot. She was originally a teacher of the deaf at the Clark School in North Hampton, Massachusetts. So, he told his friend, Clarence Barron, raise me money afterwards, and Barron said, ”Anything Calvin.” He was very close to the Wall Street Journal; this is a Wall Street Journal story. Anything, Calvin. OK. I’ll raise money and everyone thought, well, it should be for the Coolidge archive, right. That’s what it’s supposed to be, and he wanted to be at a local library, the Forbes Library, where he’d studied reading the law named after another saver, this Judge Forbes, a legendary figure in North Hampton. Calvin said no; let the money be raised for my wife’s charity, the Clark School for the Deaf. So, he took the money that would have preserved him and, instead, poured it into her charity. That’s a great gift of love, and when you think about it, you see why. Maybe he felt he was a little frail. She had given up a lot for him. She called marriage a ”harness.” She loved him, but she knew it was a harness, so they pushed together forward, and he wanted to pay her back and he knew she might be around decades after him, and he wanted her to be the important lady in the town and she was because she was the chief patron and donor of the Clark School for the Deaf. They gave the money to that, so cut off your nose to spite your historical face, right. He gave his money to her.
LAMB: You say in your book and we’ve noticed a lot of this is happening lately, that you read the diaries of his doctor. Why are these presidential doctors, and they’re doing it today, publishing their diaries?
SHLAES: I don’t think some of it’s published, some of it isn’t. We went to the archive, I’m not wild about the doctor, the doctor’s a little creepy.
SHLAES: Just it sort of had headstrong opinions about the family; the husband is mean to the wife, Calvin. You know, marriage is a complicated thing and no-one can ever know all of it. And, I don’t envy the White House first couples because everyone is always it’s really a court, and everyone’s always edging to favor one or the other, and the husband has his court, the president, and the first lady has a court, and then they fight with each other like the tsars. The Coolidge’s had a minimum of that because they were good people, but it was there and the doctor sided with Mrs. Coolidge who was a wonderful person, the extravert to his introvert, and they played off each other. But, he knew that she was the extravert, and she knew why he was the introvert, and their marriage is admirable in an interesting way you can see in that post-presidency gift.
LAMB: How did you get on the foundation board of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation?
SHLAES: Just out of affection for it. It is a worthy place that requires support and, if I can do anything to help, I’m not rich, but if I can do anything to help bring others there, to support the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, I will. We have a great director, Mr. Serra, it’s Coolidge’s Mecca. It’s ...
LAMB: Where is the foundation’s headquarters?
SHLAES: It’s his place you go to. It changes people’s lives when they see these houses, you drive north past Ludlow, Vermont, where there’s a little ski resort, on the big road, it’s not hard to get to. It’s not much farther than, say, Bellows Falls or Brattleboro, like that. You just drive up, and you’ll see something amazing. You can stay in one of those ski resorts like Hawk Mountain, or the little bed and breakfasts around it. It’s not that far from Dartmouth College which is in New Hampshire ...
LAMB: Is this Plymouth Notch ...
SHLAES: Plymouth Notch, Vermont. And, it’s simple and it will change your life and your children’s if you see it. You can see the room upstairs where he worked. You can see the church where one of his ancestors bought a pew, got very involved in the town records, too, because the Coolidge’s were allergic to debt. They were terrified of debt. This book is a story of how you overcome debt as a country or as an individual, and we found that there was this one ancestor who was a debtor, that’s what the book opens with because, you know, their economics, their business, their small farms were so important in their lives. And, so, you can just have a feel for how hard it was in Vermont in that time.
LAMB: Got some video from a program we did in 1999 on presidents. And, his son, John, was still alive.
SHLAES: Oh, that’s wonderful.
LAMB: He’s very old in this. I think how old was he when he died? He ...
SHLAES: Oh, I don’t know, but ...
LAMB: In his 90’s, I know that, and it’s not so long ago did you did you ever talk to him?
SHLAES: I did not. He was born around, let’s see, around 1906.
LAMB: OK. Let’s watch this and you have to listen carefully, but he’s talking about his brother, Calvin, and I want to get that story ...
SHLAES: Oh, Calvin. Yes.
LAMB: From you.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: You mentioned your brother, Calvin Jr., do you have any fond memories of him that you’d like to relate?
JOHN COOLIDGE: Well, we were always together, we roomed together and played together, at school. We were always together. He was a fine brother, very brilliant boy. I had trouble keeping up with him in the same school. He was a better scholar than I was. He was quiet. Didn’t always join in some of things that I did. Of course, he was not interested in baseball which I was. He loved to read books.
LAMB: So, the impact of Calvin Jr. on the Coolidge presidency?
SHLAES: This is like a Lincoln story. It’s an amazing tragedy. Calvin Jr. was about 16, and he got a blister on the tennis court of the White House, and the blister went septic, and he died within about a week. If you can imagine, from a blister to death, just before antibiotics came in. Again, you know, we’re affected by these things, antibiotics so what a story, and there was nothing that they could do about it. Coolidge had lost his sister, he’d lost his mother, and now he was losing Calvin who was the luck child of the family. Indeed, as you can hear from a happy guy, very clever, extremely loyal, and he didn’t know what to do. I think other historians have told this story, the death of Calvin, as the end of the Coolidge presidency. This was in 1924. He was elected that year on his own 4 more years. And they say, ”Well, he was depressed for the next 4 years,” there’s a book that’s pretty good, by Gilbert, that’s the thesis. I don’t see that. It’s not a story of ”yes, but” the death of Calvin, it’s ”but, yes,” that he persevered, the president, notwithstanding a blow almost no-one he nor, Grace could understand, the life of their family and you see a lot of sorrow and anger and trouble. He took a tree from the Lime Kiln lot of his family in Plymouth, and they planted somewhere around the White House. I’ve not been able to discern what happened to that tree. I’m not sure it made it. You can’t always take a spruce and re-plant it in Washington soil. But, can you imagine, they planted it so they could look out the window near the tennis court and see where Calvin had been. And the president himself said, ”The joy of the presidency went out for me.” But, I see him pursuing in a grand campaign his civil war was the tax campaign. He poured his energy into that instead and did prevail in the tax campaign in 1926. He won the presidency outstandingly. Can you imagine your son dies and then you win in 1924 as president beating the third party, the progressive party and the Democrats combined. The Republicans had the absolute majority in ’24 even though a lot of the progressives were former Republicans, so he was tremendously popular because of his perseverance in part. But, this story of Calvin, it just came over them, and you can see after the presidency, Mrs. Coolidge felt free to write about Calvin which she hadn’t. They didn’t go out and sorrow about their child in public. They were very reserved people, very conscious of station, but afterwards, there’s a poem that we have that she wrote and, of course, it changed their life forever. Calvin said that Calvin was the child who expresses the things you want expressed. But, I want to give credit John, too, for opening the window to Calvin so lovingly, not competing with him. Calvin said when he worked in the tobacco field, that’s the photo so someone said, ”Well, if my dad were vice president or president, I sure wouldn’t work in any tobacco field in Massachusetts.” Calvin said, ”If your dad were my dad, you would.” The Coolidge’s wanted their kids to work. The Coolidge’s emphasized the virtue, and what a contrast, it’s a big contrast from the Roosevelt’s where the kids ran around the house a lot and made a lot of noise and it was fun. You can see this from the ”tell alls” by the servants, but at times, you know, were a bit rambunctious. I think they had an animal ride around in the White House, the Roosevelt’s. The Coolidge’s were rigid with their kids about behaving in the White House in a kind of joyless way from time to time. Coolidge was extremely hard on John, who went to Amherst, and the low point of his life, are the letters to John, which are in the Barre archive where he berates John for not performing well in college. So, every tragedy, like the loss of a child, has an effect. They suffered from the loss of Calvin, but they did persevere and what I like about John, I wish I had known him, was he was so good about preserving his father’s legacy. He understood, and he was a wonderful man in that way, with incredible empathy. For example, the cheese factory in Plymouth Notch which was the president’s fathers, they wanted to make money from dairy, it’s always a struggle. They had a cheese factory because before refrigeration, cheese was the way you transmitted protein. John started that again as a symbol of what it had meant to be a struggling farmer. And it was important to Coolidge because he always vetoed agricultural subsidy, farmers never have made much money, he said, but that didn’t mean he didn’t understand how hard it was to be a farmer.
LAMB: So, how do you now, working for George W. Bush in the...
SHLAES: For his foundation...
LAMB: For his foundation. How do you line up the fact that he had a $5 trillion addition to the debt?
SHLAES: These are questions we have to ask a lot of presidents, and I am historically an economically oriented person, and I see that wars cost a lot of money, so let’s just say that first of all. But, one of the splendid things about George W. Bush is his great big spirit. So, if I came up to the president and I don’t report to him, it’s a real foundation doing work in many areas including, for example, curing cervical cancer in Africa and said, ”President Bush, you were wrong about Medicare part D.” He would say, ”Well, maybe I was,” or maybe he would say, ”I wasn’t wrong,” but he has no trouble creating an intellectual home for people with different ideas who might say something that might not be totally where he was or flatter him. In that, he is very much like Coolidge. He is not a narcissist. He is not a vain man, President Bush. He wants to serve, and there’s a connection there with both Bush’s and Coolidge. It’s their sense of service, their spiritual side, I would say their piety. They know that it’s an office that we’re serving in, and I see that in President Bush, too, very little vanity about the foundation. That’s like Coolidge after Coolidge was out of office, it wasn’t about him. And that’s incredibly hard to do once you’ve been the important person in the world, you’ve got to stay, we all know that person, right. Once you’ve been on television all your life, very few people are not vain afterwards excepting you, Brian.
So, how do you overcome that and suppress vanity and serve? This preoccupies President Bush.
LAMB: OK. Well, let me make another connection here. Vice President Bush became president in many people’s eyes because he was the vice president with Ronald Reagan. And then, his son, George W. Bush, became president because of the fame of the name Bush, and you say in your book that the two things that made Calvin Coolidge president was the Boston police strike and the fact that he was picked as vice president. So, let’s start with the vice president thing. How did he and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion...
SHLAES: How did he ...
LAMB: How was he chosen?
SHLAES: How was Coolidge chosen?
SHLAES: Yes. Well, this is very important. Imagine now we have this problem of public sector unions. We might like the people in them, but they’re asking a lot or Reagan had the air traffic controllers. They were in a union, PATCO, they were good guys, they were asking a lot. In the case of Reagan and PATCO, they were jeopardizing public safety because planes are important. They can crash. So, Coolidge had an analogous situation as governor of Massachusetts and, because of certain anomalies in their law, the governor had a say in the police story in Boston. The policemen in Boston went on strike after World War I. They were nice guys. They were underpaid. There was a terrible inflation nobody was acknowledging. They’re station houses had rats, people chewed you know, little rodents chewed on their helmets, 18 ways they deserved a raise. They deserved better treatment. They were over-worked. Nonetheless, they walked off, and this is a very rough time in American history, much rougher. There was chaos and violence and rioting and looting in Boston. So, Coolidge was on the team, the leader of it that fired these policemen. They went in a union with Sam Gompers, not even a very radical union, the union that was the favorite of President Wilson, but Coolidge said, ”No right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere at any time.” But, those were the three phrases. No right to strike against the public’s safety. I’m drawing a line, and what’s incredibly scary about this from a political point of view, is he had an election a few months away. He liked Irishmen, he was famous for the getting the Irish vote, the policemen were Irish. He’s firing them, they’re nice, they’re horses love them, what a bold controversial move. Why was it all good? Nobody knew at first. The reason that it was good is there’s a limit to what a public sector union should do and jeopardizes the city’s safety is too far.
And after that move, the unions in the cities didn’t do that anymore, and the cities felt safer and commerce was easier after that rough period. He received national recognition including from Wilson who waffled on the same issue for his bravery. He did win election again, even though he had turned his back on these Irishmen, even though he felt terrible about it, and that gave him national stature, and it’s why he was chosen. He thought he would chosen for president so...
LAMB: Well, you paint a picture about Woodrow Wilson going across the country promoting the League of Nations and, at the same time that Coolidge is governor of Massachusetts dealing with this strike, and how did they stay in touch in those days, and what did Wilson contribute to that whole debate?
SHLAES: Well, that’s interesting. They didn’t really stay in touch. Coolidge might call the Navy or somebody, defend war department for help, and you do see some traffic from Franklin Roosevelt who was Navy in this whole issue of the strike and the port city, need to police it, need to feed it, you know, would there be a general strike. But, Wilson communicated through Sam Gompers, who’d gone to Versailles, who was the union statesman, his friend who had kept labor quiet during the war.
LAMB: Let me just back up a little bit before, Samual Gompers was what did he run?
SHLAES: American Federation of Labor.
SHLAES: So, he was the good labor guy.
LAMB: And why would he have gone to Versailles? What was going on in Versailles?
SHLAES: Well, because the future of European workers and American workers is important. We knew that there was going to be a revolution in Europe. There was already revolution in Europe. You think of, imagine, the Soviet Union is being formed now, maybe Germany is going Communist too.
LAMB: What year was the Versailles meeting?
SHLAES: Well, this would be 1918, 1919, 1920. We had unemployment in the US. We had our budget had gone up, it was $1 billion and went to $18 billion, 18 times. We wondered whether we were bankrupt from World War I. All this is going on so you need to keep the peace, right. And that’s Sam Gompers was, and the police of Boston affiliated with Gompers thinking they’d be safe doing whatever they did because they were on President Wilson’s side.
LAMB: But, all those policemen were actually, a whole bunch of them were fired?
SHLAES: They were all fired except the ones who...
LAMB: Were any of them hired back?
SHLAES: No, except the ones who stayed, the ones we would call ”scabs,” or whatever, the ones who stayed, not all, they hired new ones and that was to make a point. That’s rough deterrent justice of a very old-fashioned variety that we find incredible today. So, but, Wilson waffled, and if you read in that chapter, you’ll see him on one day, he’s kind of on the side of the public sector unions. He had his own strike to deal with coming in Washington. He was in charge of Washington, D.C. He was completely preoccupied statesman; I have to keep labor quiet so I can sell the League of Nations, right? Imagine, you know, the way a president would have, so many issues, choosing among them, very tired, about to have a stroke, and there’s these Boston policemen, and they didn’t know how to deal with that, and he just kind of puts it off. And, the governor of Massachusetts deals with it, instead, that was Coolidge. And then Wilson says, pretty good, OK, I accept that because the unions can’t go too far. Even Gompers was ambivalent.
LAMB: How was Calvin Coolidge picked to be vice president?
SHLAES: Well, he thought he would win, but that was a little...
LAMB: You mean for president?
SHLAES: Yes, he did. Because he had this national stature of showing how tough he was, just the way we would have a governor now doing that. But he had a problem, Henry Cabot Lodge, the senior senator from Massachusetts, a great snob, an institution in the senate, the nominal, not nominal, but really the leader of the senate, Lodge wasn’t sure he liked Coolidge. Lodge was vain, and it was all about Lodge, and the Coolidge’s, and there are Coolidge’s all over Massachusetts, it’s a big Massachusetts name. Coolidge was some kind of swamp backwoods Coolidge, the governor, not the kind of Coolidge that Lodge knew from Harvard, right” They considered Amherst backwoods. And he didn’t really take Calvin Coolidge seriously, and he also toyed with him. At times, he told him he thought he might be a good candidate. Other times, not. So, if your own state is not for you at the convention in Chicago, surely you’re not going to be nominated to be the president, and Coolidge didn’t even actually go to that convention in Chicago. We’ve heard about the Blackstone Hotel and the smoke-filled rooms, and how Harding was chosen as senator to be president. But, there was a bit of a rebellion that the senate was running the whole thing at Chicago, the Republican convention. And, out of that rebellion, someone said, ”I’m going to nominate a governor.” They thought Lenroot a mild, in between, progressive Republican from the Midwest. They thought he would be and, instead, they said, ”Let’s get a governor.” So it was a Westerner who stood up and said, ”Coolidge for the vice president. He’s a governor, let’s have him.” And there was a lot of applause all of a sudden at the convention, and that’s how Coolidge got it, unexpectedly. And I would estimate to Lodge’s displeasure.
LAMB: You say then, after Calvin Coolidge was elected in 1924 as the president, fully elected after the death of Harding and all that, that his vice president was Charles Dawes and that they didn’t like each other or he didn’t like Dawes. What was that all about?
SHLAES: Some of that was his own sanctimony and some of that was that Dawes was impossible. He was the rogue deputy from hell.
LAMB: How did he get picked?
SHLAES: Well, Dawes was a wonderful man. He was in charge of basically procurement and distribution in World War I getting stuff for the generals to the front line. So, he gave a famous speech called the ”The Hell and Maria speech,” where someone was picking at how he spent money to get stuff to the front line to win the war, and he said, Hell and Maria, we would do anything to win that war. And then he went the other way, a flamboyant figure, very good speaker, and was in charge of cutting the budget after the war, a crucial job, we should look at now when we’re writing a new budget law because they had this budget law where they created a budget office, sort of the forerunner to the OMB, but with more power. So, he was a man with Nixon went to China on the budget, Dawes did this, he cut the budget. He did the Dawes plan helping Germany. We lend them money, the Germans paid everyone else back. What a statesman. Banking family, Chicago land family, but he was a maverick. He’d go his own way and what infuriated Coolidge was that Coolidge had some close confirmation hearings planned. And, Dawes used his inauguration, we’re in an inauguration time, to get up and berate the senators for their poor behavior and abuse of the filibuster essentially. And he antagonized the senate rather than following his orders from Calvin, his president to appease, make friends with, grease the wheels for the nominations to come.
LAMB: You tell a story in here, though, about Calvin Coolidge having breakfast at the White House, and a lot of members of the senate and all calling in sick, not wanting to come.
SHLAES: That’s right. Well, he wasn’t a get-along guy. Harding was a get-along guy, right. So, Coolidge comes in and he’s a governor. He had presided over the senate. I don’t think presiding over the senate was fun to him when he had formally presided over the senate of his state of Massachusetts where you can vote, not just in a tie, but you have more power as the head of the senate of the state of Massachusetts in that body than you do as vice president, president of our Senate here. So, he hadn’t really liked the senators. Lodge made his life hell there when he was vice president, and he but I want to say I think it was his virtue that made them not want to come. This story is, Coolidge would host Vermont breakfasts and usher Ike Hoover, not the president, the usher would round up the people. Ike Hoover didn’t really like Coolidge. Coolidge was not a good tipper. And Ike kept a diary, lo and behold; everyone loves face-time with the president. We all go, Democrat or Republican, when a president summons, right? The senators didn’t go, so there’s a roster of excuses. Sick, Senator Heflin. Sick, Senator Reed. Wife’s sick or friend’s sick and you’re like, wow, and Ike Hoover maliciously kept a record of the negative RSVPs, but what I see when I look at why these senators turned down these Vermont breakfasts with the maple syrup from Coolidge’s properties, they knew he wasn’t going to give them anything. Imagine the incredible pressure, prosperity has been there for years, the budget should grow, why not? Why shouldn’t it grow? Oh, the farms need something. Oh, let’s nationalize power, muscle shoals was an abiding issue. Let’s give the vets more, one mendicant after the other, and Coolidge was so unsatisfying at these breakfasts, he always said no, and after awhile, they turned their back on him.
LAMB: I found these quotes. I don’t know if they’re in the book, but I found it and I wanted to ask you about it, that he was offered presidency of Amherst, and he says that’s it’s easier to control our congress than a college faculty?
SHLAES: Well, that makes sense. There’s a sub-story there. There was a wonderful, also rogue, president of Amherst, who his friend, Dwight Morrow had helped put in, Alexander Michael John, and some viewers will know, Michael John’s name from Wisconsin where he went later and created this interesting experimental college. It’s a great legacy there. Michael John was progressive in a way that the Amherst men weren’t used to, and he basically wasn’t friendly to World War I, and that was as divisive as the Iraq war has been lately. It was a scissors through society. You were on one side or the other. So, the Amherst alums were on one side, and Michael John was on the other. He wasn’t pious enough for the Amherst old guys, and eventually, they forced him out. He didn’t go easily, and Coolidge was clearly on the side that forced him out, and he wasn’t happy with that because he could see Michael, I mean, they could all see Michael John was talented. It was a hard call, and they were all, you know, all of a sudden these nice men had negative articles about them in the New Republic when they’d fancied themselves fine fellows. And, they had thought what they were doing was for Amherst, and Michael John spent quite a bit of money, that one of the issues was he borrowed and overspent on his personal life in the job as Amherst president. So, this was a burr in their sides. They were unpopular for ejecting this university president, and he didn’t want to get involved with those politics rationally enough. There was also a new head named just before he left office.
LAMB: In his early age of 60, he died, and I read that he gave $700,000 to his wife, Grace, as you know, what he had willed her. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but I got on the calculator and it shows that it would be worth $12 million today.
SHLAES: He wasn’t poor at the end...
LAMB: Where did he make it?
SHLAES: Well, one way he made it was he had another career as a successful journalist. Calvin Coolidge columnist, and I like that about him too, and I hope to build some things around that, Coolidge wrote a column every day. Can you imagine?
LAMB: How long?
SHLAES: Five hundred words.
LAMB: Did you read a lot of them?
SHLAES: I did. I have a book, there’s a wonderful book that was put together of only a year. He stopped after a year just like he decided not to run again in ’28. He stopped, he said that’s enough, I’ve done them, but he a lot of papers took the column. He made $75,000 as US president. He made more as a columnist. It was an embarrassing amount of money because, remember how many papers we had then, imagine every Web site paid you a little. So, I believe he made $200,000 alone from the column and, in hard times, that was a lot, but it was honest work. He wrote the column. He was exceedingly popular. Is there time for one story about that?
LAMB: We have very little time, but go ahead.
SHLAES: Well, someone paid him to write ten columns for $2,000 each, and OK, he sends them in, he gets the money, and they publish only six. He summons the editor an issue and says just what the editor expects him to say, ”I wrote ten and you published only six,” and what does the editor say in response? ”But, we paid you,” which is the standard answer, and Coolidge said, ”Well, maybe those columns weren’t good enough, here’s a check for the columns you didn’t print, $8,000 back.” And then we ask, why would he give back the money if the contract said $20,000? He was entitled to keep it. Yes, he was, and that was Coolidge’s business lesson, his philosophy lesson, because he wanted to do business with the other party again. He wanted to be a good citizen. Very rare behavior now and I admire that.
LAMB: All right. With our remaining 30 seconds, which one of your children will end up being the Amity Shlaes of the 2025 calendar year? The writers...
SHLAES: The writer. I am going to say Helen Lipsky.
LAMB: Which one will be the teacher?
SHLAES: Oh, so very difficult questions. I’m going to say, I can’t they’re all going to be very good. This is dedicated to them for their own perseverance, the Coolidge theme. They all persevere and I’m very proud of them.
LAMB: We really are out of time, but is there anything new about Calvin Coolidge that you found that’s in this book?
SHLAES: That he struggled with debt and found a solution, as we do today and look for our own.
LAMB: The picture on the cover is from where?
SHLAES: I don’t know actually, but it looks to me the beginning of the presidency, 1924, something like that, maybe 19 anyway, it looks like before his son died, very happy.
LAMB: Thank you, Amity Shlaes, author of Coolidge.