American Leaders Need to Act Coolidge Again

By J.F. McKenna

Leadership does matter, of course. But, alas, it is something different from what is now touted under this label….It is mundane, unromantic, and boring. Its essence is performance.—Peter Drucker, The Wall Street Journal, 1988

In short, real leadership is Coolidge.

That thought crossed my mind as I listened to the cable pseudo-pundits bloviate about the Republicans’ 100-plus-page strategy to win the hearts and minds of a detached and disheartened electorate. Dump the stuffy white-guy image. Really listen to the little guy. Expand the size of the party’s tent. These wise guys are nothing if not an abundance of convoluted, if generally empty, advice. On the other hand, Drucker became the grand old man of modern management by cutting through the rhetorical clutter and getting down to business. A customer buys and values what a product or service does for him.

If Drucker were still around, he’d be part of the growing revival of Calvin Coolidge’s ideas and example. I’m sure of it.

As seventh graders and history grad students can tell you, Cal Coolidge was President from 1923 to 1929. And as economic history scholars know, Massachusetts’ gift to the nation can provide more than just tonight’s Jeopardy big-payoff question.

“Coolidge sustained a budget surplus and left office with a smaller budget than the one he inherited,” Coolidge author Amity Shlaes told a Hillsdale College audience earlier this year. “Over the same period, America experienced a proliferation of jobs, a dramatic increase in the standard of living, higher wages, and three to four percent annual economic growth.”

What this brand of Calvinism lacked in marketing flash was more than made up for in terms of delivery. As I wrote from this corner awhile ago, “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.” (‘Silent Cal’ Still Understands The Right Way To Talk Up Business)

Historian and journalist Shlaes stressed to her Hillsdale audience that often the sharpest tool of the real leader has but two letters—no. Coolidge’s negativity took shape as goal-directed restraint on behalf of the public’s treasury and ultimately the public’s welfare. The 30th President had his political suits tailored to accommodate a larger pocket veto than Warren Harding’s, and as Shlaes related, he even chastised the White House cook about serving too much ham in the People’s House during his watch.

When “Silent Cal” wasn’t polishing his public persona as America’s laconic chief executive, he was reminding the government’s stewards that “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is a characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”

Memo to those contemporary political fixers who write long and overpriced white papers: Achieving measurable goals trumps fashioning empty phrases and sound bites, every time.

Coolidge would tell you, and Shales can confirm, that meeting one’s goals takes grit, especially if the goals include tax reduction and budget cuts.

“Coolidge and his budget director met every Friday morning to identify budget cuts and discuss how to say ‘no’ to the requests of cabinet members,” Shlaes said. “Most Presidents give in after a time…but Coolidge did not, despite the budget surpluses during his presidency. He held 14 meetings with his budget director after coming to office in late 1923, 55 meetings in 1924, 52 in in 1925, 63 in 1926, and 51 in 1927.”

The good Ms. Shlaes, whose speech appears in the college’s recent issue of Imprimis, did not provide a running account of Cal’s golf outings during the White House years. Too bad. Maybe it’s just not Jeopardy-worthy information.

Calvin Coolidge, Shlaes said, “distinguished government austerity from private-sector austerity, combined a policy of deficit cuts with one of tax cuts, and made a moral case for saying ‘no.’” She added that Coolidge and his policies’ popularity “should give today’s conservatives hope.”

In short, being Coolidge-like is cool.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant, and former editor at Industry Week, Tooling & Production, and Northern Ohio Live magazines. Reach him at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.


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