A new film titled “Things of the Spirit,” takes a fresh look at the life and presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, understandably, received renewed interest during the Reagan era of American politics. Coolidge is perhaps best known for his laissez-faire economic policies and the famed moniker, “Silent Cal.” What makes “Things of the Spirit” different is that it’s produced by a self avowed “liberal filmmaker,” John Karol.
Karol penned a piece last week for the New York Sun titled, “The Case for Cal.” When he first set out to tackle Coolidge years ago he admitted to not knowing all that much about his subject. “What little I knew of Coolidge came from New Deal historians who view him as a somnambulant capitalist tool whose presidency served only as a prelude to disaster,” Karol said. Here are some fascinating observations from his article, which puts Coolidge in a new light:
— If I had to fashion a sound bite to describe him, I would call Coolidge a political minimalist who chose to guide rather than legislate.
— It is on economic matters that Coolidge is most remembered. World War I and its aftermath caused skyrocketing national debt. At the same time, the top income tax rate soared to 73%, stifling private investment. Post-war America was a chaos of strikes, race riots, anarchist bombings, inflation, and unemployment.
— Harding, Coolidge, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon sought to kick-start the economy by reducing the top marginal tax rate to 25%. They did. Revenues increased dramatically, presaging Arthur Laffer by half a century. Both presidents ran surpluses in all their annual budgets. By the time Coolidge left office, the national debt had been cut by one-third.
— New Deal historians maintain that the tax cuts of the 1920s reversed the progressive tax policies of Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Exemptions increased so much that by 1927 almost 98% of the American people paid no income tax whatsoever. When Coolidge left office in 1929, wealthy people paid 93% of the tax load. During Wilson’s last year in office they had paid only 59%.
— Less remembered, and less appreciated by contemporary politicians, was Coolidge’s aversion to farm subsidies. At great political risk, Coolidge twice vetoed the popular McNary-Haugen farm subsidy bill.
Karol also makes note of Coolidge’s aggressive actions in cleaning up the scandals from Harding’s administration, and his very progressive views on race for his time. Coolidge was known as a man of immense integrity. He even cut the name tags out of his suits when he asked his wife to resale them, so not to profit from his name and position.
On the film’s website, columnist and radio talk show host Michael Medved, calls “Things of the Spirit,” the finest documentary he has ever seen. George Gilder notes, “The film completely dispels the cliché notion of New Deal historians that Coolidge was a small-minded materialist “Babbitt” whose Presidency served only as a prelude to disaster. See it. You’ll never think the same way about Calvin Coolidge again.” Former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis also weighs in with a glowing review.
Calvin Coolidge in many ways represents the old fashioned idealism of a largely forgotten generation of common sense and practicality. In a sound clip provided by Michigan State University from 1920, Coolidge warns the country about the dangers of excessive taxation and federal spending. This high quality recording is worth a listen.
Other memorable statements from Coolidge:
— I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
— The strength of our country is the strength of its religious convictions.
— If only his countrymen would fulfill their basic obligations to one another, most of their problems would take care of themselves.
The theme for Coolidge’s presidential reelection in 1924 was, “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” Today that would sound like a presidential campaign slogan under a global warming platform. Perhaps as the government becomes more regulatory and intrusive, and far less practical, the lessons of Keeping cool with Coolidge will echo louder still.