A President Who Spoke Sense

January 30, 2013 - 9:46 AM

Who was the last U.S. president to write all of his own speeches and deliver more speeches than any of his predecessors? While serving in the White House, he also held a whopping 520 press conferences-eight per month-more than any president before or since.

The answer is Calvin Coolidge, who earned the nickname "Silent Cal" in spite of his prolific record at the podium. It was in social settings and parties when he tended to clam up. At a dinner event when journalist Dorothy Parker leaned over to Coolidge and said, "Mr. President, I have a bet with a friend that I can get you to say at least three words, "he famously responded, "You lose!"

Careful with words? Yes he was. But as author Amity Shlaes writes in her new biography of him, "For a nation looking for a steady hand, he was a welcome pilot."

When Coolidge spoke, he made more sense than many of the men who have held the highest office in the land, especially the one who holds it now. What he said about taxes in his inaugural address in 1925 you'll never hear from Barack Obama: "I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very distinct curtailment of our liberty."

The current president tells entrepreneurs "You didn't build that" as he buys votes by expanding dependency on government. Contrast that with what Coolidge stood for, as expressed in this statement from his days as governor of Massachusetts: "In a free republic a great government is the product of a great people. They will look to themselves rather than government for success. The greatness of America lies around the hearthstone."

In the 1920s, with Coolidge's strong support, the top income-tax rate fell from 73 percent to 24 percent. Americans with the lowest incomes benefited even more when the rate at the other end fell from 4 percent to one-half percent.

Coolidge knew something today's tax hikers don't: Incentives matter.

In 1924, Silent Cal asked a large audience, "If we had a tax whereby on the first working day the government took 5 percent of your wages, on the second day 10 percent, on the third day 20 percent, on the fourth day 30 percent, on the fifth day 50 percent, and on the sixth day 60 percent, how many of you would continue to work on the last two days of the week?"

In the years when Coolidge was vice president and then president, the economy grew by nearly 60 percent, the national debt was reduced by a quarter and the federal budget was consistently in the black. If it hadn't been for the wrong-headed policies of the Federal Reserve and Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, the Coolidge prosperity could have lasted through the 1930s. (See "Great Myths of the Great Depression" here).

I miss Calvin!

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