COMMENTARY | At a tea party candidate forum for the Georgia GOP’s gubernatorial candidates, former state representative Jeff Brown asked the question “Who is your favorite president not named Ronald Reagan?” That earned laughs from the audience and made some candidates squirm.
Recognizing that they have to rely on more than just one president for a role model, there’s a movement to lionize Calvin Coolidge and get people excited about his presidency. Amity Shlaes wrote a biography of the 31st president titled “Coolidge.” Shlaes, a senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, is best known for her book on the Great Depression titled “The Forgotten Man.”
Ironically, that was the image Jon McNaughton painted that got folks worked up, which includes Barack Obama standing on the U.S. Constitution, scornfully ignoring “the forgotten man,” cheered on by liberals and condemned by Founding Fathers and conservative presidents like Coolidge. If you slide over Coolidge’s image on the interactive page, you’ll see McNaughton writes, “During Coolidge’s presidency the United States experienced the period of rapid economic growth known as the ‘Roaring Twenties.'” Taxes were reduced in Coolidge’s term. In addition to these tax cuts, Coolidge proposed reductions in federal expenditures and retiring some of the federal debt.”
Over and over again, we learn that Coolidge was a great guy for conservatives. In his Wall Street Journal review of the book “Coolidge,” Robert Merry praises the president’s role in reducing the national debt and breaking the Boston Police strike while he was the governor of Massachusetts, something Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would love today. Merry adds “GDP soared” while glossing over the corruption that permeated the Harding administration that Coolidge served in. Most Wall Street Journal letters were effusive in their praise, though one noted that Coolidge was “baffled by the Great Depression.” Most praise the “prosperity” Coolidge brought with his hands off approach to the American economy.
Yet the American economy may not have had the rosy picture McNaughton, Shlaes, Merry and biographies claim. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, America had recessions that began in 1920 (ending in 1921), the summer of 1923 until July of 1924, from October of 1926 until November of 1927, as well as the Great Depression of 1929, which lasted until 1933.
Of course it wasn’t all Coolidge’s fault that we had four recessions over a 10-year period (one started a year before he became vice president). But the ease in which these arguments gloss over the Harding administration is only matched by the way we fawn over the “Roaring 1920s,” which weren’t as good as Coolidge’s supporters tell us.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.