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The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928″ statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal – “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times – “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.



What History Forgot

To the extent that President James A. Garfield is remembered at all today it’s because, as the history books summarize, he was shot and killed by a deranged office seeker.

But, as with most things, there is so much more to the story. Garfield, one of the “bearded presidents.” who somehow get lost to us between two other assassinated chief executives, Lincoln and McKinley, was, by all accounts, an exceptional person. Born in a log cabin – the last president to claim that distinction – Garfield sought a good education, loved to read and eventually became a college president. He amassed a distinguished military record during the Civil War, served with real skill and commitment in the Congress and, much to his surprise, became a dark horse, compromise Republican candidate for president in 1880.

Garfield won that very close election against another Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield’s popular vote margin was a mere 10,000 votes.

A reluctant candidate and, had he lived longer, very likely an effective president, Garfield immediately took on the task of reforming the “spoils system” of the federal government. He battled powerful interests in his own party on that issue and won. He also expressed a desire to work hard to bind up the wounds of the war that were still fresh in 1881.

Garfield’s rather remarkable life and his tragic death are stories well told in Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic. Millard covers Garfield’s life in some detail, but her book is really about the awful suffering he endured after being shot in a Washington, D.C. train station and the fact that his doctor’s decisions – barbaric by 21st Century standards – really killed him.

Garfield likely would have recovered from his gunshot wound in the back – the bullet just missed his spine and hit no vital organ – if the doctors had employed even basic sanitary procedures and not probed the wound repeated with dirty fingers and instruments. When Garfield died 11 weeks after the shooting, his autopsy revealed that the slug wasn’t endangering his life, but that infection and blood poisoning had killed a good man who very well might have had a distinguished career in the White House.

As for the deranged office seeker, Charles Guiteau, he was eventually tried and hanged for the murder of the president, an act he carried out because he became convinced that God and the future of the Republic depended on him killing Garfield. Guiteau was a frustrated office seeker, too, who was reacting to what he saw as unfair treatment at the hands of Garfield and others in his administration. Clearly suffering from acute mental illness, Guiteau smiled and waved to the crowd as he was led to the gallows, happy until the last to be the center of attention.

Garfield’s devoted wife, Lucretia, lived until 1918, always seeking to burnish her husband’s reputation, and son James Rudolph Garfield served as Secretary of the Interior under Theodore Roosevelt.

Candice Millard’s fine book about a supremely interesting character, his politics, 19th century medicine and a fascinating period in American life, reminds us that the only thing new is the history we haven’t read.