President from 1923 to 1929, Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) is traditionally dismissed as an honorable mediocrity, but journalist Shlaes (The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, 2007, etc.) argues that he was better than that.
The author makes a convincing case, but readers who don’t share her conservative views may not agree that he was superior to FDR, whom she skewered in The Forgotten Man. Raised in rural Vermont, Coolidge practiced law in Massachusetts. His celebrated New England reserve describes him accurately, but he was popular and flourished in Republican state politics. Progressive at first, he steadily grew less so, backing William Howard Taft against Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. As governor, he achieved national fame and the vice presidency by crushing the 1919 Boston police strike. Taking over after President Warren Harding’s death, Coolidge set to work reducing federal taxes, expenses and personnel. By contemporary standards, he was a moderate. His opposition to business regulation and social programs provoked only modest controversy. Times were prosperous, and he got the credit and became very popular. Clearly an admirer, Shlaes stresses that, under Coolidge, the budget was balanced, tax cuts reduced the top rate by half, the national debt fell, and unemployment remained below five percent. Wages rose and interest rates fell, as well, so the poor had jobs and could borrow money more easily. Most historians portray the 1920s as a simpler time, but the author maintains that Coolidge’s hands-off, minimal government, free-market approach remains ideal.
Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan provides an enthusiastic endorsement, and like-minded readers will find Shlaes’ well-researched but highly opinionated biography deeply satisfying.