Speaking for Silent Cal

Amity Shlaes bio highlights president who cut taxes and budgets

Wikimedia Commons
• February 20, 2013 5:30 pm


Fans of President Calvin Coolidge and bestselling author Amity Shlaes gathered Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation to revive the reputation of the "very important but largely forgotten" president.

Shlaes, who released a biography of Coolidge in February, said Coolidge’s presidency is especially relevant with the looming sequester of automatic spending cuts.

Shlaes noted that while neither side wants the sequester to come to pass, politicians are "expected to say yes" on spending to please their constituencies and not be perceived as uncaring to families dependent on "mandatory" programs.

Coolidge’s presidency teaches modern audiences "how a person said no," Shlaes said.

World War I and the policies of President Woodrow Wilson caused debt to increase twentyfold. Congress was gridlocked, markets were uncertain, and jobless veterans wanted pensions and assistance from the government.

Coolidge served as President Warren Harding’s vice president. Harding tried to cut sending, but while "his mind said no, his soul and temperament said yes," Shlaes said. He died in office 15 months before reelection.

While Harding had friends and hosted parties in the White House, Coolidge was often "alone with maybe his cigar" and often "conversed in pauses" with his cabinet members, Shlaes said.

He succeeded in lowering the tax rate to 25 percent upon reelection and vetoed more than 50 bills, agreeing with his father that it was "better to kill bad laws than pass good ones."

"The silence of ‘Silent Cal’ had a purpose," Shlaes said. "Most people thought he was just stupid," but "he used dullness and boredom as a political device."

When Coolidge did speak, it was with a dry humor. When he received two lion cubs as a gift, he named them "Tax Reduction" and "Budget Bureau." Shlaes recounted the famous story of a dinner party where a young woman sitting next to Coolidge told him she had made a bet that she could get more than two words of conversation out of him.

"You lose," he said without looking at her.