By J.F. McKenna
I once enjoyed a cigar in the presence of Calvin Coolidge. The experience proved very enlightening.
Well, to be precise, I once smoked a cigar next to a bust of Calvin Coolidge.
That’s almost the same thing.
My audience with President Coolidge’s well-cast likeness was just outside my hotel in Northampton, Mass. I was taking a break while covering an annual trade show for manufacturers. Before me that spring evening, local commerce proceeded in an orderly but vigorous fashion.
“The President” kept me company. And good company he proved to be — in one way living up to the reputation established by its inspiration.
“Very nice town,” I recall telling the sculpture honoring Northampton’s former mayor and the nation’s 30th President.
This Coolidge said nothing, reminding me of the real President’s moniker. President Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” in life. He remains labeled as such in textbooks.
As a national leader, he allowed business and industry to do the nation’s talking.
President Coolidge had a penchant for what I call MBSOOTW — Management By Staying Out Of the Way. It’s a lesser-known corollary to Management By Walking Around. MBSOOTW keeps politicians and policy wonks from tinkering with market economics. If you haven’t already noticed, many pols and wonks resemble 13-year-old Monopoly addicts buying Park Place with brightly colored but wholly worthless money.
Decades ago, Calvin Coolidge summed up his economic philosophy with this axiom: “The business of America is business.” He backed up those six words with restraint.
“It is his modesty and restraint in governing — virtues that came to be associated with his frugal, pragmatic Vermont upbringing — that are now the object of much discussion,” Vermont Gov. Jim Douglass said at last year’s dedication of President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center in Vermont.
From many corners of economically flatlined, tax-burdened America, President Coolidge gets glowing reappraisals as a leader. No surprise. The nation wants less talk and more results. Coolidge offers a worthy benchmark.
Like a modern-day windsurfer, “President Coolidge often looked as though he were doing nothing, and his peers, as well as later observers, mocked him for it,” wrote economic historian Amity Shlaes on Forbes.com. “But in fact the Coolidge style of government, which included much refraining, took great strength and yielded superior results. Nowhere did the Great Windsurfer demonstrate such strength more than on the waters of economics.”
President Coolidge was short on conversation but long on commitment, particularly to low taxes and sensible monetary policy, said Shlaes, co-author of the history blog www.silentcal.com . As the Web site Conservapedia notes, President Coolidge’s policy “was a simple one, made easier by the continuous prosperity [now absent] and the weakness of the liberal opposition [likely to be reappear soon]. He believed in government economy, reduced taxation, and gave aid to private business without accompanying restrictive regulation.”
Today, Shlaes pointed out, “our government has moved so far from Coolidge’s tenets that it’s difficult to imagine such policies being emulated. But it is precisely this remove that is creating a new and national fascination with the Great Windsurfer.”
For awhile now, America has swiped an angry finger, back and forth, atop the electoral reset button. Policy makers with any sense of long-term survival should give serious thought to borrowing from Silent Cal’s political playbook.
A trip to Northampton might even be in order, with or without cigars. The silence would certainly prove instructive.
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant.