Coolidge Versus Frost

Greetings, I am the author of Coolidge, out this week from HarperCollins. Thank you for having me at Ricochet.

You thought I was going to write about tax rates. Coolidge’s tax cuts are legitimately famous. He cut the top rate to 25%, below Reagan’s 28% rate. But getting CC’s tax thoughts into policy will be easy compared to getting him into the great task preoccupying me: getting CC (back) into the culture.

Coolidge favored the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (“Snow-Bound”). The late great Peter Stanlis, however, tipped me off to some similarities between CC and the poet Robert Frost. “Miles to go before I sleep” (Frost) resembled Coolidge’s philosophy, which was always to honor a contract. Frost’s consideration of social obligation mirrors Coolidge’s own considerations (CC liked a little welfare, but at the state level): “Home is the place where, When you have to go there, They have to take you in.”

So  here’s my first question to Ricochet readers. Can a conservative ever be considered culturally? Or, can the conservative aspect in a cultural figure, the currently Kennedy-owned Frost, for example, ever be recognized? This contest isn’t truly Coolidge versus Frost; it is Coolidge and Frost, both finding a more appropriate place in our culture.

One last factoid: CC’s and Frost’s lives crossed in weird ways, especially at Amherst, CC’s alma mater. Dear alumni of Amherst: is it possible to make CC’s presence at your school greater? It seems ironic that the wonderful structure holding the Coolidge papers there is not the Coolidge Library but the Frost Library.

  1. Judith Levy, Ed.
    C

    Amity, the very difficulty of your question seems to be its own answer. And with that evasion out of the way, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed listening to you on the recent podcasts. Your enthusiasm about your subject is so infectious that I can’t wait to read your book.

    As far as cultural penetration is concerned, I’d love to see a movie about Calvin. I wonder if such a project would ever be green-lit.

  2. SpinozaCarWash

    Amity, what are your thoughts about A Puritan in Babylon, the biography of CC by William Allen White?  Did you draw on it for your own research and writing?

  3. FX Meaney

    Been waiting for months for my Kindle download.  Good luck with this book, too.   The Forgotten Man is historic. Addendum, February 12th:  First thing I saw when I went to my computer this morning was Amazon tellling me it was in my Kindle Library.  Addendum 2, February 12th:  Amazon is amazing.  My hard copy arrived on publication day as well.

  4. Quinn the Eskimo
    Amity Shlaes, Guest Contributor:

    So  here’s my first question to Ricochet readers. Can a conservative EVER be considered culturally? Or, can the conservative aspect in a cultural figure, the currently Kennedy-owned Frost, for example, ever be recognized?  · · 9 hours ago

    Yes, but conservatives have to start it themselves and push it until it becomes something that has to be acknowledged in the wider culture.  The academic and cultural left are not going to go out of their way to demonstrate their one of their great figures was conservative.    Too many view conservatives are one step away from domestic terrorism or repealing the 13th Amendment.   They could hardly concede that some major American writer was that kind of knuckle dragger.

    To cite the example of an non-American writer, one cannot have a serious discussion of Tolkien with discussing the conservative elements, even if at one time he was a favorite of the counterculture.

  5. Masked Man

    At arch-rival Williams, the only alumnus President was James A. Garfield, also a Republican, who is honored primarily through a residential dorm that before the late 60s was instead a frat house.

  6. Leslie Watkins

    William F. Buckley was considered conservatively, was he not? Lots of folks claimed to loathe him, especially his conservative religious stance on the culture, but his critics seemed to recognize that you could not make fun of him. Or caricature him, unless you wanted to risk looking very very dumb. … If this is at all an answer to your question, I think that conservative ideas at least about the size of government and tax policy will come to the fore and perhaps take hold of much of the populace rather soon. My 17-year-old daughter (very smart, open-minded, takes all AP classes but still knows nothing but banner-isms) is always saying we need a new party: fiscally conservative, socially liberal (though I hasten to add that her view of liberal is quite a bit more moderate than mine), the key point being that she has no problem saying it is immoral to use police power to take from Peter to pay Paul but also that it is immoral to use police power to enforce moral issues. She also gets dynamism and does not romanticize the causes of weltschmerz (though she would like to conquer it). (cont.)

  7. Leslie Watkins

    (continued)

    Also, recalling a great column of yours on Taylor Swift, don’t you think that she and Bieber are heralding an era of family-minded celebs who think waiting for marriage to have sex is not especially uncool?  And that that portends the inclusion of more conservative ideas in pop culture? In other words, that some conservative ideas—if not conservatism itself—will become cool? I’d be pleased with that.

  8. Reckless Endangerment

    I am an Amherst alum. You would be shocked at how little play our sole graduate to occupy the White House receives on campus. There are far more pictures of JFK when he visited campus in the 60s than there are pictures of Coolidge. As for Frost, he is our library’s namesake. Many of the entry-level English classes feature his work in their syllabi. Coolidge has a few buildings around campus named after him, including the quietest of what are known as the “Social Dorms” (apt, no?). I do agree though with your new book that the moment is ripe for a rejuvenation of Coolidge on campus. Let me know and I can help you lead the charge with some greatly interested alums!

  9. Starve the Beast
    So  here’s my first question to Ricochet readers. Can a conservative EVER be considered culturally?

    I’m thinking no. At least, not in our culture, not right now.

    I worry about being cool. Not me, obviously, but in general. The left has very effectively taken over the academy and the entertainment industry. They get to frame the questions we face in terms of youth, hipness, free birth control pills and legalized pot. Oh, and while you’re getting stoned and having sex, vote for a bigger and more powerful political class, m’kay?

    Hate to say it, but I just don’t see how we can complete with that. Sure, our ideas are historically much better than theirs, but… well, they just don’t teach history any more, you know?

    Loved The Forgotten Man. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into Coolidge (the book, I mean).

  10. Susan in Seattle

    I am choosing not to answer your question at this late hour!  I will say, however, I am anxiously awaiting my copy of your book and I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the podcast of +/- 10 days ago.

  11. Johnny Dubya

    An author such as David Mamet who reveals himself to be a conservative is generally dismissed as a crank, and his subsequent works are viewed through the prism of his politics.  Lasting conservative works of art in the culture are often the “accidental” product of liberals, whose works are not subjected to the same scrutiny and suspicion because of their creators’ political bona fides.  An example is “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut.

  12. Sumomitch

    Lately, it occurs to me that culture, even more than politics, is something that is in danger of dying with each generation. The core meaning of “conservative” is a person or a society that seeks to preserve culture from that threat, to pass on the values and traditions that they inherited to the next generation.

    As de Tocqueville noticed, there was always an anti-conservative bias in the American project, a tendency to embrace the new for its own sake and to reject the old on that basis alone. The material wealth and disruptive power of the industrial and technological revolutions magnified that tendency enormously in the 20th Century, even as they separated the generations from each other. Starting in the roaring 20s, urban and suburban children took their values from mass media (movies, radio, then TV and the internet), even as extension of education isolated them with age peers for ever longer periods.

    It is probably no accident that the last President to “get” Coolidge was born in 1890: Eisenhower. His farewell address is a powerful critique and prophecy of the industrial and technological forces that have made Coolidge’s culture seem as remote as Mozart’s.

  13. Tommy De Seno
    C

    Calvin Coolidge swore in my grandfather as a citizen of the United States back in 1928.

    I can’t wait to read your book!

  14. James Of England

    Will you still be about a couple of days after the book’s released? I’ve been rereading The Forgotten Man, and would love to be able to ask questions after reading Coolidge. For what it’s worth, I’d say I’m currently most curious about 1: the roles his minimum wage advocacy and unbelievably extreme pro-tariff rhetoric (worse even than his pro-tariff position) play in your book, 2: whether you celebrate the fact that a dark skinned man with a far more ethnic history than the current President was Senate Majority Leader under Coolidge, and was then a national electoral asset in 1928, dispelling the suggestion that Obama’s 2008 victory demonstrated serious racial progress, 3: how kind you are to my hero, Harding, and 4: how hard you stick it to Wilson.

    I’ll admit that 2 is my keenest hope at the moment; your character sketches in The Forgotten Man are so good, and Curtis was such an enthralling and overlooked figure.

  15. Amity Shlaes
    C

    James of England places some serious demands. Min wage: CC was all over the map on this. He surely understood the economic argument against the minimum wage. His friend Bruce Barton recalled him saying: “isn’t it a strange thing that in every period of social unrest men have the notion they can pass a law and spend the operations of economic law” — CC was referring to price controls or wage controls in historic Belchertown. But CC saw the necessity for political concessions, and often gave in on wages, seeing min wages as a lesser evil. Remember there were very ugly strikes in those days, and Coolidge often found himself forced to negotiate in places like Lawrence, Mass. 

    On tariffs, CC failed to budge, despite efforts of his friends, especially the enlightened Dwight Morrow.  But again, CC saw tariffs as a political necessity, a lesser evil.

  16. Amity Shlaes
    C

    Further, to James of England: 

    urtis: a great topic.

    Harding: Admire him much. He led the party, including CC, in the economy (saving) and normalcy program, which would benefit us so much if we could embrace it today. But while Harding’s mind was committed to austerity and saying “no,” his heart wanted to say “yes.” So he failed, and in doing so hurt causes he loved. His father made a joke about him, that it was a good thing WGH was not a girl, for  if he were, he’d always be “in the family way.” The joke matters, since it makes clear giving in was a pattern with this tragic pres.

  17. Amity Shlaes
    C

    Coolidge documentary: happy to report that with Michael Pack of Manifold Productions, there will be a film. Manifold has produced many fine films, including Hamilton with R Brookhiser.  Judith Levy, where do you live? We need all the help we can get….

    For Forgotten Man, we are already doing the graphic novel. I’ll alert you when artist Paul Rivoche completes, which should be soon.

  18. James Of England

    Harding’s austerity seemed to me to have had an impact on the budget, but while I will be sad to lose respect for him, I’ll be glad to have learned more.

    I’m very glad to be corrected on minimum wages; I’d not known enough context to appreciate his position.

    On trade, though, I’ll need some convincing. This quote from September 10, 1930, appalled me. I can think of no uglier Presidential condemnation of trade, even from Jefferson.

    “We wish to protect our own wage earners, our agriculture and industry from the results of dumping produce on our markets at a price with which they could not compete. But the policy has a deeper significance than that. We are unwilling to profit by the distress of foreign people. We do not want their blood money. Our efforts are not only to protect our own people from cheap goods, which President McKinley said meant cheap men, but we propose to set up a standard that will discourage other nations from exploiting their people by producing cheap goods. Our policy requires fair wages for both domestic and foreign production. We have no market for blood and tears.”

  19. James Of England

    Incidentally, I do greatly appreciate the honor of the lengthy (by Ricochet comment standards), responsive, and thoughtful reply.  I’m grateful both to Amity and to everyone on Ricochet who forms a link in the chain of causation that led to my being here and receiving it. Thank you.

  20. TeeJaw

    Conservatives in popular culture?  Freedom and economic prosperity are now a hard sell to the LOFOs.  How could you ever sell them any conservatism?  The LOFOs apparently, according to the elections results, are in control of everything.  So, that’s that.

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