Imagine “a presidency under a cloud of scandal,” author Amity Shlaes told the Conservative Leadership Conference in Raleigh on Friday. Just a few months into his administration, this president was so beleaguered that political insiders wondered if he would wreck his party or last another year in office.
“Everyone is turning on him and getting into the question of obstruction of justice,” she said. But, she added, imagine that “he manages to turn [the scandal] into a footnote, brought the prosperity he promised, and redeemed the philosophy of his party.”
The president she was speaking of was Calvin Coolidge.
She told the packed ballroom at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley hotel that Coolidge had served as vice president under Warren Harding, who started some valuable reforms, but turned out to be, as one capital wit said, “a slob.” Harding’s cronies pulled his administration into scandals, such as the Teapot Dome affair, and disgrace.
After Harding’s death, when Coolidge became president, “there were scandals in the headlines every day,” she said. The politicos thought “he could never come out of the shadow of Teapot Dome.”
But Coolidge, first of all, fought back. He appointed two special prosecutors, one a Democrat and one a Republican, and Harding’s corrupt “Ohio Gang” was thrown out.
More important, Shlaes said, “Handling the scandal wasn’t just about the scandal. It was about executing policy to perfection — to perfection!”
He resisted or cut entitlements, even when politically popular, including farm subsidies and veterans’ bonuses. He slashed regulations. He really cut the budget — not just slowing the rate of increase — so that the federal budget was smaller when he left office than when he took office. He reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 25 percent. He included himself and the White House in the cost-cutting campaign, trimming the executive mansion’s budget.
The result was a surge in wealth — for all. There were more jobs, more goods, even more leisure. Rising productivity meant that the six-day week could become the five-day work week. “The Twenties were the decade that gave us Saturday!” she said.
Nor is this just about money alone she said. Coolidge cut taxes “so that people could have more for themselves. That is the true meaning of freedom.”
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Shlaes is the author of four New York Times bestsellers: The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man: Graphic, a full length illustrated version of the same book drawn by Paul Rivoche, and Coolidge, a full-length biography of the thirtieth president, which debuted at number three on the Times list and The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americas Crazy. National Review called the Forgotten Man “the finest history of the Great Depression ever written.” The Economist wrote of Coolidge that the book “deserves to be widely read” and made it an editor’s choice for 2013. Miss Shlaes is under contract to write “The Silent Majority,” a third volume on the twentieth century, focusing on the Great Society. She is also chair of the Coolidge Presidential Foundation.