Calvin Coolidge The American Presidents Series: The 30th President, 1923-1929

The American Presidents

David Greenberg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books




224 Pages



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He was known as "Silent Cal." Buttoned up and tight-lipped, Calvin Coolidge seemed out of place as the leader of a nation plunging headlong into the modern era. His six years in office were a time of flappers, speakeasies, and a stock market boom, but his focus was on cutting taxes, balancing the federal budget, and promoting corporate productivity. "The chief business of the American people is business," he famously said.

But there is more to Coolidge than the stern capitalist scold. He was the progenitor of a conservatism that would flourish later in the century and a true innovator in the use of public relations and media. Coolidge worked with the top PR men of his day and seized on the rising technologies of newsreels and radio to bring the presidency into the lives of ordinary Americans—a path that led directly to FDR's "fireside chats" and the expert use of television by Kennedy and Reagan. At a time of great upheaval, Coolidge embodied the ambivalence that many of his countrymen felt. America kept "cool with Coolidge," and he returned the favor.


Praise for Calvin Coolidge

"Coolidge believed, says historian David Greenberg, that most problems facing the president would simply go away if he ignored them. Coolidge usually turned in early, a routine that also became a running joke . . .Yet, as Greenberg makes clear in this concise and eminently readable biography, Coolidge's silence and casual work habits meshed well the national mood . . . Greenberg gives is an excellent description of the future president's early life . . . Greenberg skillfully describes the event that made Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, a national figure . . . Greenberg finishes this excellent biography by asking whether it's fair to blame Coolidge for the Depression."—Chuck Leddy, American History

"In Calvin Coolidge, the 23rd volume in the American Presidents Series (under the general editorship of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), Greenberg provides a brief and bracing re-examination of the 30th president of the United States. Coolidge's record, he argues, was 'neither substantial nor enduring.' He is best understood as a transitional figure who used 20th-century methods to promote 19th-century values—and 19th-century nostrums to calm the anxieties and displacements of an urban, industrial society."—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Baltimore Sun

"The last president any sitting commander in chief wants to hear himself compared to is Calvin Coolidge. 'Silent Cal' is considered plodding, dull, a failure. One of his most lasting legacies is a quote attributed to Dorothy Parker: When news of Coolidge's death reached her, she allegedly quipped: 'How can they tell?' This brief but enlightening biography by Slate columnist David Greenberg reminds us that Coolidge was, in fact, hugely popular in his day, the first president who could be heard regularly by Americans, thanks to radio, and that our image of him has been almost entirely filtered through his 'smart set critics.' Still, he was certainly unprepossessing. As Mr. Greenberg reveals, 'Cal' used the word 'I' just once in some 52,000 words of speeches. He was a grim, cheap Yankee of the decidedly un-Brahmin tradition who catapulted to the national eye after he handled the Boston police strike of 1919 as Massachusetts governor. His legacy, it appears through closer study, has more to do with 'staying the course' than charting his own. He cleaned up some of Harding's scandals, but went right back to the policies that allowed them to flourish. Shortly after he left office the market crashed, and Coolidge's legacy began to go south with it."—John Freeman, The Dallas Morning News

"Greenberg's brisk, engaging volume is the latest in a series of short biographies of the presidents edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The series aims to be comprehensively egalitarian; William Henry Harrison, who served one uneventful month, will receive his 50,000 words, the same as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lasted 12 tumultuous years. Coolidge lands somewhere mid-spectrum in both time in office and significance . . . Greenberg, who teaches history and media studies at Rutgers, has written previously on perceptions of Richard M. Nixon. His comparison of Coolidge with Reagan is apt as far as it goes . . . But another parallel springs as readily to mind. Coolidge made a habit of bestowing nicknames on those around him; his tax cuts particularly benefited the rich; the hottest issue of his presidency was immigration (Coolidge in 1924 signed the most sweeping immigration reform in American history, drastically curtailing legal entry into the United States); flooding in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Mississippi required a major relief effort and prompted angry criticism of Washington's half-hearted response. But unlike George W. Bush, Coolidge left office after a single full term. 'I do not choose to run,' he said simply, and walked away. Considering how things have been going recently, Bush may wish he had followed Silent Cal's lead on this point, too."—H. W. Brands, The Washington Post Book World

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Out of Plymouth Notch
Calvin Coolidge remembered the rustic world of his boyhood, not altogether romantically, as a lost arcadia. He was born on the Fourth of July, in 1872, seven years after the...

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  • David Greenberg; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

  • David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, a columnist for Slate, and the author of the prizewinning Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. A former acting editor of The New Republic, he has written for many scholarly and popular publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He lives in New York City.

  • Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Dominique Nabokov