Friday, August 24, 2007 08/24/07-Coolidge and Hoover

In today's excerpt--President Calvin Coolidge and his Secretary of Commerce and successor as president, Herbert Hoover. Though he became permanently linked to the catastrophe of the Great Depression, Hoover was a spectacularly successful and self-made businessman who later became famous through his efforts leading emergency relief during World War I and the American Flood of 1927. Coolidge, although a skilled public speaker, in private was a man of few words and referred to as "Silent Cal." Coolidge, a "hands off" president, presided over a period of innovation and expansion. Hoover, an interventionist, ineptly intervened as the country slid into its most terrible depression:

"The differences between the two men started with small things. ... Hoover liked the microphone. Coolidge shied away from it. After a landslide presidential victory in 1924 Coolidge sent a clerk to read aloud his State of the Union address. Hoover ignored politics for the first thirty-five years of his life. Coolidge held his first office, that of city council member in Northampton, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-eight, and had rarely been out of government since. Hoover was a mining engineer; Coolidge was a country lawyer.

"Hoover believed that government might help business do better, functioning as a sort of beneficent hand. Coolidge liked Adam Smith's old invisible hand. The men were different breeds of Republican. Hoover believed that action was necessary to make a country live up to its potential. Coolidge had long ago determined that the world would do better if he involved himself less. ... Hoover ... was by personality an intervener; he liked to jump in. ...

"Coolidge by contrast believed that the work of life lay in holding back and shutting out. He conducted his official life according to his own version of the doctor's Hippocratic Oath--first, do no harm. It sounded easy ... but Coolidge was not silent; he later estimated that each year as president he wrote or spoke 75,000 words, a share of those involving laying out his explanation for vetoing legislation. And Coolidge's 'no harm' rule came out of strength of character. By holding back, Coolidge believed, he sustained stability, so that citizens knew what to expect from their government. ...

"By age thirty-five or forty Hoover ... began to feel his greatness was unlimited. ... Others might live lives of periodic setbacks; Hoover seemed immune. Sherwood Anderson, the novelist who chronicled such setbacks in Winesburg, Ohio, would write with astonishment that Hoover's was the face of a man who 'had never known failure.' ...

"One of the people who irritated [Coolidge] was the persistent Hoover. ... Coolidge hated Hoover's tendency to react to news with grand, intrusive plans. Could not Hoover see where some of his rescues led? At one point later on, the minimalist president Calvin Coolidge concluded quite simply that 'that man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.' He had a nickname for Hoover: 'Wonder Boy.' "

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Amity Shlaes, pp. 17-38.


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