If Calvin Coolidge were president today, the federal government wouldn’t be shut down.
So says one of the nation’s leading scholars on Coolidge, Jerry Wallace of Oxford. Wallace spent decades researching the nation’s 30th president as an archivist with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, he delivered a presentation on Coolidge to a group of students and visitors at Wichita State University.
Wallace said he first became interested in Coolidge when, on a training program at the National Archives in 1970, he found a discarded picture of Coolidge addressing a group of Catholic prelates. He said it made him wonder why a man who was once popular enough to become president had fallen to such obscurity that historians were throwing away pictures of him.
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While popular history has dismissed Coolidge as a kind of caretaker president sandwiched between World War I and the Great Depression, in reality, he was a gifted politician with a common touch, Wallace said. Starting as a city councilman and working his way up to the nation’s highest office, Coolidge won 17 elected offices, more than any president before or since, Wallace said.
A staunch but complex Republican, he kept good relations with business and labor at a time when strikes were common and often violent. He got on well even with his Democratic opponents, Wallace said.
If Coolidge were in the White House today, “First of all there wouldn’t be a shutdown,” Wallace said. “He would go over to the House (of Representatives) to listen to their concerns, and they would work out a compromise.”
Wallace said he sees President Obama’s resistance to doing that as a sign of weakness in his presidency. He said Obama has taken heat from his Democratic base for giving too much to Republicans in previous spending negotiations and his current stance of avoiding talks to end the shutdown on any terms but his own reflects that.
“You’re not going to have Coolidge doing that,” he said. “Coolidge was a professional politician.”
A great believer in the ability of the private sector to solve problems, Coolidge would not have supported the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Wallace said. However, Coolidge was a big proponent of privately held whole-life insurance, the only way at the time that a man could ensure his family would be taken care of if he died or that he would have a nest egg for retirement.
Wallace said he sees parallels between Coolidge and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
Like Brownback, Coolidge’s major mark was paring back the size of government, cutting taxes and relying on business to solve societal problems.
Through his plan of cutting taxes for business, “Brownback’s trying to do a Coolidge, trying to build up the economy,” Wallace said.
A surprise choice for vice president, Coolidge ascended to the presidency in 1923 when Warren G. Harding died. He was elected to his first and only full term in 1924.
Coolidge presided in the “roaring ’20s,” a time of growth and prosperity. While income disparity between the rich and the poor was about the same as it is today, few minded because large numbers of people were lifted from barely keeping food on the table to a lifestyle people today would consider more middle class, Wallace said.
One of the reasons Coolidge was long held in low regard is that historians of the 1930s were shaped by the Depression and tended to lump him in with Herbert Hoover, on whose watch the economy fell apart, Wallace said.
Many of Coolidge’s policies would be considered progressive, especially in the political climate of his time.
A graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts and a self-taught lawyer, he was a big supporter of education and raised teachers’ salaries as a state official. As president, he proposed creating a Cabinet-level Department of Education, although that wouldn’t happen until almost 50 years later under President Jimmy Carter.
And at a time when overt racism was rampant in America, Coolidge was a voice for tolerance and inclusion, Wallace said. In 1924, he pressed for and signed a bill granting American Indians full citizenship.
He was a leading critic of the Ku Klux Klan, then a mainstream force in American politics. And in a famed speech before the American Legion, Coolidge hailed black World War I veterans, saying, “No man’s patriotism was impugned or service questioned because of his racial origin, his political opinion or his religious convictions.”
But despite rising to the heights of American politics, Coolidge remained a local politician at heart who believed local democracy was the best democracy, Wallace said.
If he were alive today, “he would say it’s up to you to go out and create the kind of government you want,” Wallace told the WSU audience. “It’s up to you to take control of the government and make sure it does what the people want.”