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Barone: Coolidge gets new deal in revisionist history

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

For years, most Americans’ vision of history has been shaped by the New Deal historians. Writing soon after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others celebrated his accomplishments and denigrated his opponents.

They were gifted writers, and many of their books were bestsellers. And they have persuaded many Americans – Barack Obama definitely included – that progress means an ever bigger government.

In their view, the prosperous 1920s were a binge of mindless frivolity. The Depression of the 1930s was the inevitable hangover, for which FDR administered the cure.

That’s one way to see it. But there are others, and no one is doing a better job of making a counter argument than Amity Shlaes, whose 2008 book “The Forgotten Man” painted a different picture of the 1930s.

Shlaes agrees that Roosevelt’s initial policies seemed to end the downward deflationary spiral. But then bigger government, higher taxes and aggressive regulation led to further recession and years of achingly slow growth. Sound familiar?

Now Shlaes has produced a book tersely titled “Coolidge.” It shows the 30th president in a far different light than the antique reactionary depicted by the New Deal historians.

Calvin Coolidge began his political career during the Progressive era, a time of expanding government. But he came to national notice when that era was ending in turmoil.

At home, it was a time of unemployment and inflation, of bombs set off before the attorney general’s house and on Wall Street, of labor union strikes in coal and other basic industries.

Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts and in charge of the Boston police when they went on strike in September 1919.

Coolidge fired the striking policemen. He explained why in a telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers. It concluded, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”

“The time for disruption was over; in order for the next day to be better,” Shlaes writes, “law must be allowed to reign now.”

Coolidge became a national celebrity. The Republican bosses in the smoke-filled room picked someone else to be Warren Harding’s running mate. But the convention delegates stampeded and nominated Coolidge.

Coolidge’s Republicans had small majorities in Congress, and many favored big new spending programs – veterans’ bonuses, farm subsidies. Coolidge said no, with vetoes that were sustained.

More recent economic historians have suggested that policy mistakes by the Federal Reserve were the prime cause of the deflationary downward spiral.

Shlaes doesn’t argue that Coolidge’s policies could or should be replicated today. But she does establish that the 30th president is worthy of more respect than previous historians have accorded him.

• Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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