Mandeville, LA - Exclusive Transcript - We have the author of the new book called Coolidge. She is also the author of one of my favorite books, Forgotten Man, Ms. Amity Shlaes. She also has been a winner of the Bastiat Award, which means that she must be keeping in line with the writings of Bastiat, which makes her an all-around good person. Check out today's audio and transcript for the rest...
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Now to our final guest of the day here on what would be Washington’s birthday Friday, moved to a federal holiday Monday, today and now called President’s Day. We have the author of the new book called Coolidge. She is also the author of one of my favorite books, Forgotten Man, Ms. Amity Shlaes. She also has been a winner of the Bastiat Award, which means that she must be keeping in line with the writings of Bastiat, which makes her an all-around good person. Ms. Shlaes, Amity, it’s been a while since we’ve talked. It’s always a pleasure. Welcome.
Amity Shlaes: Good morning. I’m waiting for the Coolidge song.
Mike: What’s the Coolidge song?
Shlaes: I think you could write it. He needs a new media, he’s so great. I was reminding myself who you were and all you’ve done. Coolidge needs new media. He’s so great.
Mike: I’m on it. I’m very anxious to read your book about Coolidge. Your other book really changed my life. I never really got to thank you personally. I was one of those that wandered about the countryside like a brain-dead zombie thinking Roosevelt was the greatest thing since the invention of a bread slicer until I read The Forgotten Man and went: Good grief, this guy was a monster! This Franklin Roosevelt guy was not so good. Thanks for that good book.
Shlaes: Thank you. I’m not sure Roosevelt was quite a monster, he just did a poor job on the economics. That hurt a lot of people. They all did, so did Hoover. Yes, thank you.
Mike: Certainly. I want to start off with the Coolidge presidency, because he’s another one of the 20th century greats if you look at what he did not do. I want to ask, there’s an anecdote that I’ve been telling the audience and I can’t recall where I found it. I don’t have the Coolidge book yet, it’s on the way. There’s an anecdote I’ve been telling the audience about, Coolidge refusing to have a phone in the White House. Is that true or is that anecdotal?
Shlaes: Coolidge liked the dignity of the presidency. He didn’t get on the phone easily. It’s possible that he banished the phone from his desk. He was known to use it from time to time. The person who was hilarious with the phone was Hoover. He was a real engineer. He made a closed circuit phone where he could call the important people and they could call him, a government hotline, but it was closed. He shut out the possibility of input from people he didn’t expect to get input from. We all know people like that. Coolidge had great respect for the office, so it wouldn’t surprise me that he relocated the phone at least. They didn’t have much of a phone where he came from in Plymouth Notch.
Mike: One of the great speeches of the 20th century -- I have it posted on the website at MikeChurch.com and I read it on air -- President Coolidge’s address on 4 July, 1926. That was 150 years after the Declaration. It’s a wonderful speech. Do you cover that in the book?
Shlaes: I think I do. You’re speaking of July 5 Address of the Celebration of 150th Anniversary?
Shlaes: That’s a nice one. We’re celebrating the birthday of America, which also happens to be his birthday, July 4.
Mike: I did not know that.
Shlaes: As much as the revision as The Forgotten Man was, this book is, too. Coolidge’s stat was so low; he’s ranked in the bottom half of presidents. What I found when I encountered this man was the leader I might like to see today. This speech is just one example of that. It’s very respectful of the states. Coolidge was a federalist. You go back and read him and it’s almost intimidating to write about him because he writes better himself than anyone. He’s one of the best writers as presidents go.
Mike: Is this what attracted you to President Coolidge, or was it the fact he inherited an economic situation nearly as bad as the one Hoover either created or inherited, and the method he use to deal with it? I know you are a student of economics and a teacher of it as well. Was it the economic part of it that drew you to Coolidge?
Shlaes: Yes, in a way. Economics are part of our life. We try to treat them separately, like over there is the economy and here is history. Econ affects history and history often doesn’t get it right if it doesn’t respect econ. I think for the listeners, the main thing one would say is right now we’re concerned about budget. Right now we’re concerned about the prospect of interest rate rise. We’re concerned about government corruption, government handing out deals to specific groups. Coolidge fixed a problem like that. He came into a rough time and he, and Harding before him, fixed that by budgeting. If you want to know something about Coolidge, why you should care about a president you never learned about, it’s that after 67 months in office, he left and the budget was lower than when he came in, in real terms, in nominal terms, with vanilla on top. He actually cut the budget. He didn’t merely reduce the increase, which is what they mean when they cut now. He actually cut the budget. How did he do that and how did he do that and be popular, which he was? Who was this guy? I was interested in that.
He wrote beautifully about himself. The speech that I love is the one he gave to some philanthropists in a conference call. He was highly modern. We think of him as something out of Dickens. He was very modern. He spoke to these philanthropists and said: I didn’t really want to talk to you. I’m tired of speeches. Then I heard you want to hear about the budget. Then he gave his little confessional that I’ll repeat for you and your audience, “The budget idea, I may admit, is a sort of obsession with me. I believe in budgets. I want other people to believe in them. I have had a small one to run my own home; and besides that, I am the head of the organization that makes the greatest of all budgets, that of the United States Government. Do you wonder, then, that at times I dream of balance sheets and sinking funds?” Isn’t that amazing?
Shlaes: We need a president like that. It doesn’t matter which party he comes from. Here he was, here’s our man waiting, very brave. He thought budgets were virtuous. He had his econ straight. He didn’t just cut taxes, he also cut the budget.
Mike: Amity Shlaes, whose book is Coolidge, out on newsstands today and at Amazon.com, is it true that cool Cal Coolidge did not aspire to the presidency initially?
Shlaes: I don’t think so. He was an ambitious young man. We all aspire to the presidency, right? Church for president; Amity for president. That would be fun. He certainly aspired. His method was the following: I’ll just try to do the best job in the job I’m in and wait for them to come for me for the next job. Because he did such a good job, he did rise. He was quite cross. He was hoping to get the nomination for presidential candidate in 1920 and they took the creepy senior figure in the Senate from his own state, Massachusetts. Henry Cabot Lodge kind of led him on and said: You’re just the right age, Calvin. You’re a nice, young governor from Massachusetts to be president and I’m kind of old. When they got to the convention in Chicago, the Massachusetts delegation led by Lodge, who was a snake, did not back Coolidge hardily. His own state was not for him. He was expecting to get the nomination and he didn’t. He got the vice presidency, which was a disappointment for him but he bit his tongue.
Mike: Henry Cabot Lodge, you want to talk about a history study, that could be your next.
Shlaes: He’s a little bit too vain.
Mike: If you look at his bibliography, he never stopped writing. If you look at Henry Cabot Lodge and go to books.google.com, you’ll spend the rest of your days reading Henry Cabot Lodge, including a write-up on the Federalist Papers, which he wrote, including a biography on Washington, one of Hamilton. He was quite prolific. I’ve never heard him called weird, though.
Shlaes: He wasn’t weird, he was mean. He was one of those people that took all the air out of a room, and sometimes he was right. In the case of Coolidge, he was mostly wrong. He was a narcissist. Politics c’est moi, that’s what he thought. It was all about Henry all the time. When he got to the convention, Henry’s work was to trash the opponent Wilson and the Versailles Treaty and League of Nations and all that. He didn’t care about promoting the next generation, Calvin Coolidge, he just thought about his own anger at Wilson and the League and squandered the convention in Chicago. You’ve heard of the smoke-filled room. When the phone call came, Coolidge of course did become president because Harding died. I read one book where they did call Lodge and tell him that Harding had died. He said: What? Does that mean Calvin Coolidge is president? He couldn’t even conceive of it he was such an incredible snob. Lodge was Boston and they looked down on western Massachusetts. I didn’t really pick this up, until I got into the research, how much they detested one another and how incredibly ferocious the snobbery of Boston was at that time.
Mike: Amity Shlaes’ book is called Coolidge. She is our President’s Day guest here today. The book is available at Amazon and other great book resellers out there. Talk for a moment if you would -- I know this from reading The Forgotten Man, that you wrote in that about the death, in the early days of the Roosevelt administration, of Coolidge. I think in 1933 or so he passed on. How was he remembered then?
Shlaes: It’s interesting. This was at the height of the Great Depression. The stock market was then down 80 percent, 85 percent. Unemployment had recently been over 20. He was not popular because he was part of the past that seemed to have led to the present. The Wall Street Journal wrote a little obit of him. You probably know and your listeners probably know I worked at the Wall Street Journal a long time. To be loved by the Wall Street Journal is the best thing in the world. The Wall Street Journal is a good-hearted paper. You want to be friends with it. They did love Coolidge. I’m paraphrasing, but the journal’s editors wrote a small obit. They said Coolidge isn’t recognized now but the blessing he gave us will be recognized later.
I did notice that on the day he died, I’m not sure if I wrote it in Forgotten Man as well, there was bad news in the newspaper that would cause a man to have an apoplectic fit or a heart attack or stroke or whatever combination that felled Coolidge. Coolidge really hated government being in the power business. He thought it was wrong. He saw the potential for growth in the power business. He didn’t want the federal government in it. In that period, I believe on that day, the president elect, Roosevelt, was visiting Mussel Shoals, which is the symbol of it all, where they were going to nationalize hydropower. He didn’t like it. We’re drawing a cartoon version of Forgotten Man. It’s a graphic novel. I’m hoping to translate it into Spanish.
Shlaes: I’m not kidding.
Mike: Are you really?
Shlaes: We are. I have a brilliant artist named Paul Rivoche. He’s almost done. It’s been a few years. It’s for high-schoolers. We do have Coolidge’s death in there. I’m hoping the newspaper page is clear with all the bad news that may have --
Mike: You’re not going to have zombies in this, are you?
Shlaes: No zombies.
Mike: Another anecdotal question I have for the definitive author of the Coolidge bio, is it true or false Cal Coolidge is the author of “the business of America is business”?
Shlaes: It’s true but it’s a different version. It’s slightly different. If you go back to the text, it’s “The chief business of America is business.” As a lot of newspaper editors, he spoke that line to a group of newspaper editors. He very soon went on to say, in the same speech, that the chief ideal of America is idealism. He didn’t just say earn money forever, kids. He wasn’t Gordon Gekko. The caricatures of Coolidge need you to defend him, Mr. Church.
Mike: I do defend him. I love him.
Shlaes: This is our man. I’m sort of sad to see how off the caricatures are. He was so spiritual and lacking of -- Hoover farmed as a business. He had agro, hydro. Hoover was an engineer. For Coolidge, farming was an exercise in federalism and property rights.
Mike: He was a western Massachusian, cut from the cloth of Daniel Shays and company.
Shlaes: Exactly. Coolidge lived on another plane. It was certainly not the plane of money. The reason why he stayed, the budget was his obsession, because he wanted the people to be more free, not because he was heartless. I like his story; it’s good for our kids. Can a Scrooge beget plenty? Yes, Coolidge begat plenty by saving. It’s amazing.
Mike: It is. Amity Shlaes is on our Dude Maker Hotline with us. We have a few minutes left so I have two final questions. Talk for a moment if you will, because I’m confident that you research all the way back to birth of one Calvin Coolidge. What was he like as a very young man, so that people who have young men and may be raising young men would know if you want him to turn out to be the next Cal Coolidge, this is what Coolidge was like?
Shlaes: Great question. I’m reading many letters from young men to me now about Coolidge, in high school or college. They’re slightly impertinent sometimes, aren’t they? There’s a mixture of friendliness and a little bit of competition in a letter from a young man. Coolidge had that. He was ambitious -- I am to be an attorney -- but also shy -- I’m not sure I can be an attorney. It’s all there. I commend his correspondence to every father. He didn’t always write nice letters to his dad. They were things like: Send me money; I’m a man; shut up. Isn’t that what a young man says? Not my sons and not yours, but generically young men send young girls letters. Ladies are often like: Send me money; I’m weak; support me; shut up. That’s what our children tend to tell us in the same note. We just have to be kind.
His daddy was kind. Mr. John Coolidge was an amazing father. In the Coolidge letters are also, from college -- he nearly failed in college. The story of Coolidge was lurching forward with many failures. The number of near failures in his life is breathtaking. I take heart in that as a human and I hope all young people do, too. He didn’t get into Amherst the first time. He only got in afterwards because of a kind of loophole, yet he became president. Any rejection you get from those interviews, you go read Coolidge. He was rejected so many times. He really wanted to go to law school; his father really didn’t want to pay for it. It was a recession. We’ve heard that.
Mike: Yes, we’re embroiled in one. I heard you one time on another radio show many years ago, probably six years ago, and you thought in your field of economics that two fields were emerging post-bubble. One was the monetarist and the other was the Austrian. Everyone would either be a monetarist or an Austrian. Do you still see that in economics?
Shlaes: No, I add a third one. It’s got a weak name: public choice theory.
Mike: James Buchanan, I’m very familiar with it.
Shlaes: I must have made a big omission there, a big sin. George Mason is a fabulous school and that’s where they teach him. I hope they’ll teach him elsewhere as well. I think you just go to classical economics, which isn’t quite Austrian, pre-World War I. Even John Keynes, I was just reading this morning, made a lot of sense before he became Keynesian. It’s there. The professor I liked very much who had the forgotten man concept about the man who pays and prays for a social project, that was William Graham Sumner. He taught for decades at Yale. Let’s bring him back and do some Buchanan.
Mike: That’s all the time we have. She is Amity Shlaes. Read the book Coolidge. For extra credit, read the book The Forgotten Man. Ms. Shlaes, it is a grand pleasure. Thank you so much for entertaining us today, and I mean that in the most gracious sense of the word. I appreciate it.
Shlaes: I’m honored. Good luck reading art for Coolidge somehow. Thank you.
Mike: That’s Amity Shlaes.
End Mike Church Show Transcript