Friday, May 11, 2012

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Coolidge

Before reading the biographies of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover I had only a characterization-level understanding of the three.  Together they were the three Republicans that let the good times roll in the 1920s and irresponsibly set up the stock market crash and the Great Depression.  Individually they were the corrupt womanizer, the silent one, and Mr. Hooverville.

Of the three, Coolidge had the longest tenure in the White House and was truly the one that oversaw the decade and probably contributed the most, or at least had the opportunity to contribute the most, to the state of the country and the economy.  The "Silent Cal" image was neither unfair nor an accident.  Although it was probably a one-time anomaly for a president, only possible for vice president who assumed office when the president died.  And it is unlikely that today someone with his lack of strong personality could even be elected as a VP.  It was also a match of an economy naturally firing on all cylinders that reinforced his laissez-faire style.

David Greenberg's book is one of the better ones I have read from the President's series, showing again that sometimes the better story and interesting analysis comes from the less obvious subjects.  In this case, while Coolidge's personality was quiet and his actions were few, he did have six years in office compared to his more flamboyant predecessor who only had two years, and those six years happened to be a time of prominent social and economic change in the country.  The author also did not spend too much of the book passionately arguing that his subject is misunderstood or underappreciated as authors in this series are too often tempted to do, although he does raise the questions of how to fairly evaluate Coolidge from the hindsight perspective of different eras.

The irony of his quiet personality is that he was the first president of the modern media age.  Greenburg shows how his administration, and Cal himself, were the first to really capitalize on the radio and news reels to spread his carefully crafted messages to the entire country.  I was amazed by the comparison that some of his speeches were broadcast to listening audiences in the tens of millions while it is estimated that Theodore Roosevelt reached no more than 13 million people with every speech he gave in his career combined.  Even if there was not much substance to his messages and positions, his image was carefully constructed and then protected by press secretaries and friends in publishing unlike any of his predecessors.  It seems ironic now that his dull and almost unimportant legacy was intentionally developed by Coolidge and his people.

Greenburg addresses the fairness of Coolidge's blame for the subsequent economic disaster.

"Any president surely would have failed to do all that was necessary to avert some serious trouble.  But Coolidge's naive faith in the gospel of productivity and the benevolence of business--as well as his excessive reliance on others to make his policies--deterred him even from asking the questions that might have mitigated the misfortune." (pg 150)

It is difficult to judge fairly from a position of hindsight, and maybe even more in this era that was so suddenly different than previous eras.  Unlike the disastrous lead up to the Civil War, there were not significant camps of people and emerging political parties warning of trouble and underlying fundamental problems.  I think it is very telling none the challengers he had, both within his party and from the other side, were arguing to slow down the economy or do anything economists later believed could have reduced the fall.  A few may have been better in the long run because they would have supported this position or that, but it is likely the 1920s would have roared regardless and it would still crash.

If history truly does repeat itself we could see other cases of economic blind spots, which is probably a fair description of the lack of attention on fundamental weaknesses in the 2000s that led to the housing and credit crisis.  Is the lesson that when everything appears to be going well no politicians want to be the ones suggesting otherwise?

I still plan to read the Herbert Hoover biography next, but then I want to pause on the 1920s as so much else was happening as the country was transitioning from 19th Century to the modern era, socially, commercially and economically.  I also want to explore more the question of economic knowledge--was it simply that the understanding of economics was not developed enough to understand what was happening and therefore leaders can be excused from not acting on knowledge and advice that didn't exist.  If that is so, then there is less excuses for repeating economic issues in the future.

I will give Greenburg's book 4/5 stars for making Coolidge readable.

(Read May 2012)