Amity Shlaes has taken up a leading role at something called the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and is trying to recast Coolidge as a model conservative leader. Together with someone named Matthew Denhart she wrote in last Sunday’s paper that Coolidge would be on the side of the current right-wing Republicans and maybe even be a tea party member. The foundation has more or less co-opted Coolidge’s name, and with it a bit of his character as pragmatic, sensible and unifying. This is rather clever. It begins a process of salvation of the Republican Party back from the wild, squalling, hateful and borderline destructive mob it has become in recent decades.
Ms. Shlaes is trying to make that trip back herself. She is in competition with a number of women on the far right who now realize that the previous message isn’t selling. She is well-educated, an adequate writer, and is married to a man named Seth Lipsky who ran a right-wing and desperately pro-Likud newspaper in New York City, the New York Sun. The Sun had little news in it, but paraded daily exhortations for right-wing policies and more support of the Israeli military.
The paper failed after a few years, demonstrating that American Jews are tired of hearing the same divisive politics and bloody-minded calls for more armament. For a time Ms. Shlaes voiced this line, but in her article last week she never said Coolidge would have sent money to Benjamin Netanyahu.
To be a successful conservative female commentator in these times you have to be shriller than Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and probably even Mona Charen, wherever she is. It’s open competition to get your mug on Fox News, to sell articles to the Wall Street Journal and to hawk your books. Like all loud advocacy, it’s a hard ship to slow or steer.
Now Ms. Shlaes says we have a lot to learn from Coolidge, such as his refraining from critical comments about his political opponents. Coolidge rarely raised his voice and in many cases refused to use his voice at all. Yes, we should do more of that. There’s no disputing that he would find right-wing rant radio repulsive, and probably MSNBC as well.
But before Vermonters agree that their best known presidential character would appreciate the hard-edged Republican attitude toward economic unfortunates in American life, a few differences should be brought out, facts that Ms. Shlaes didn’t mention.
Coolidge lived in far different times in a far different America. Most Americans, not just certain political strains, viewed economics then as hard and unforgiving. Daily life was “nasty, brutish and short.” Few expected help or even attention from the national government. Disease killed thousands, industry ground up its workers, and racial and gender prejudice went unquestioned. That Coolidge didn’t advocate liberal solutions to these problems, and to many others, didn’t mean he agreed that the government should actively fight against making life better for as many citizens as possible.
The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation is, in simple terms, being used, perhaps co-opted, to raise historical rationales for a return to the economics most Americans would rather forget. Coolidge in fact took steps, not great steps admittedly, toward the advancement of rights for the poor and the racially dispossessed. That he didn’t scream and yell — or like the Limbaughs of this world, lie — doesn’t mean he wanted no government help for anyone. The Coolidge foundation doesn’t say anything directly to support this, but there’s a subtle push to the conclusion that we can learn from Coolidge’s example. What is that example? The foundation will tell you, even if it has to create it from its own imagination.
Mr. Shlaes’ article took some Coolidge quotes and then veered off to the silly, claiming that the Coolidge character today would want to know the temperature, not the wind chill. What that meant I have no idea, but it seemed like a cutesy way of saying that whoever invented a rating that might stop your skin from freezing was weakening the national character. She also said Coolidge would have preferred cross-country skiing to downhill. Again, what could that mean? It sounded like Peggy Noonan doing a backflip into the cooking sherry.
The adult Republicans now realize that they went too far to the right. Further they realize that they had allowed all sorts of nuts and berries to dictate their party philosophy in crazed and violent overstatement. That crap doesn’t sell any longer, except in the mental backwoods of the tea party. Ms. Shlaes and others used to agree with such idiocy, but it was all an act. Now, coming back to what they hope will be regarded as the sensible center-right, they have concocted a theatrical piece involving old Cal, who deserves better. The memorial foundation suspects that most Americans have almost no memory of Coolidge. Vermonters are mildly aware that he was a native and are surprised to discover that he was a governor of Massachusetts. We also know that he spoke with a minimum of words, a trait that didn’t help explain his exact thinking.
For many, an affection for Vermont and its history pushes us toward the conclusion that if Coolidge’s character were more in evidence today, we’d all be better off. And maybe that’s so. The question is what the real Coolidge character was. The memorial foundation seeks now, in the writings of Ms. Shlaes and others, to appropriate the rights and patents to that character for political purposes.
I’d point out that anyone can start a foundation and stick a famous name on it. Several celebrities are listed on the foundation’s website, including Nancy Reagan and Jim Douglas and (what’s this?) Vince Illuzzi. Should I start the Nancy Reagan Foundation? She is still with us, but she might be flattered that people care enough to use her name and promote her thoughts as examples of how we should live. Or I could start the Jim Douglas Foundation for the same reason. Or the Amity Shlaes Foundation. On second thought I’ll do no such thing.
You can see that such organizations get to define themselves, and then that definition can be used as they see fit. They have meetings, they send out publicity, they accept financial contributions, and they pay themselves. There is no requirement that they stick to the truth, or the facts, or the historical consequence and relevance of their honoree. We need a man like Calvin Coolidge now only if you let the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation define who Coolidge was.
On third thought, I need a project. I might start small with the Vince Illuzzi Foundation.
Jeff Danziger is a writer, editorial cartoonist and former Vermonter.
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