By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Heights neighbors and fans turned out in force May 22 to hear best-selling author Amity Shlaes bring to life a politician with the willpower to say no to big government spending – America’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge.
“He’s the hero I never knew I had,” Shlaes told an appreciative audience at the Heights Casino Speakers’ Series. “Here’s this Scrooge who begat plenty.”
Her biography “Coolidge,” which was published in February and spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, tells the story of the dour Republican from Vermont farm country who was Commander-in-Chief during the Roaring ‘20s.
“He was by temperament a naysayer,” Shlaes said, in contrast to his predecessor Warren G. Harding, who wearied of fiscal austerity – and had such a hard time saying no that his own father quipped if he were a girl he’d always be “in the family way.”
Coolidge bears a message from the past to present-day politicians who think they must say yes to big federal spending to sustain economic growth, Shlaes argued.
“It is possible for an American leader to say no,” she said, “and not hurt the economy and be elected.”
As president, Coolidge balanced the federal budget, cut taxes and achieved 4% annual economic growth and below-5% unemployment.
It was Casino member Stephen Hogan’s idea to invite Shlaes to the Speakers’ Series after he saw her talking about “Coolidge” on CBS’ Sunday morning show “Face the Nation,” hosted by Bob Schieffer.
“I’m a fan of Amity’s,” he told the Brooklyn Heights Press after Shlaes’ speech. “I thoroughly enjoyed the book – and I’m not a Republican.
“I’m really more of a fiction reader, but I loved ‘Coolidge.’ It gave a real feel for that part of the 20th Century.”
Hogan gave the intro to Shlaes’ talk – just as he had at her previous Speakers’ Series appearance, when she spoke about her 2007 bestseller, “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” which sold 300,000 copies.
The former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor is now a syndicated columnist, teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business MBA program and heads a George W. Bush Institute initiative called The 4% Growth Project.
During her speech in the Governors’ Room, she drew laughs by sharing personal details about “Silent Cal,” a shy man who hid his teeth when he smiled. Socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth said Coolidge looked like he was “weaned on a pickle.”
He was so obsessed with economics that he named two lion cubs that were a gift from the mayor of Johannesburg “Budget Bureau” and “Tax Reduction.”
He fought with the long-term housekeeper at the White House, who liked to patronize specialty shops instead of buying at the cheaper Piggly Wiggly.
After she quit, her thrifty replacement shaved more than $2,000 off White House food spending in 1927, which prompted him to pencil her a note that said, “To Miss Riley - Very fine improvement.”
Thoughtful questions from the audience included a query about why Coolidge – who won an absolute majority of the popular vote in the three-candidate1924 Presidential race – chose not to run for reelection in 1928.
He believed presidents shouldn’t remain in power for too long and that it was better for someone else to have a turn, Shlaes explained.
It was painful for him to stick with his resolve, though, because he disliked the candidate who took his place, Herbert Hoover. Coolidge tried to arrange to be somewhere that didn’t have a radio during the Republican convention that nominated Hoover.
What was Coolidge’s biggest mistake or “opportunity foregone” during his presidency? another audience member asked.
Answer: His support of tariffs, which were punishing to European nations.
Afterwards, Dorothy Brooke, a Casino past president, called Shlaes’ speech “fascinating” and others agreed Shlaes made Coolidge seem intriguing – whatever their own political leanings.
“I’m a liberal – but I’m not closed-minded,” said Jeff Strong, who was a classmate of Shlaes’ at Yale. “A man who hid his teeth when he smiled – what a character.”
His son Nick, 17, came to listen because Coolidge’s ideas resonate with the teen.
“I’m a conservative,” the Packer Collegiate Institute junior explained.
Tod Mann, another Yale grad who called himself “a former Republican,” said, “Probably I would have stayed a Republican if they were more like Calvin today.”
Bob Cresci vowed to read the book after hearing Shlaes’ insights.
“For 99% of people, Coolidge is a cipher,” he said. “He deserves more attention, for sure.”