Beware 2nd term ambitions

Just a short note today – this post by Tim Cavanaugh at reason.com caught my eye. Why? Because in the very first sentence, he mentions Calvin Coolidge, if only by way of contrast to Barack Obama: “The way President Barack Obama’s acolytes are calling for bold action in his second term, you’d think he had been some kind of prudent Calvin Coolidge in his first.”

And, of course, because I’m wary of the laundry list of progressive pet schemes that Obama and his minions are pushing, on the back of what they construe as his “mandate” from the electorate. Post-Coolidge, presidents have often entertained grand ideas, some of them because they genuinely thought they were doing something good for the country, some very likely because they were working on their own legacy and you don’t usually get a big write-up in history books, let alone a monument on the Mall, if you’re content to merely “do the day’s work,” as was Coolidge’s wont. If Calvin Coolidge was, in the words of Amity Shlaes, “the great refrainer,” Barack Obama surely aims for the title of “the great 21st century progressive,” and the great destroyer of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Given the perilous state the nation’s finances are in already, this could not have come at a worse time.

Second-term blues?

The always recommended Burt Folsom poses the question “Who was the last president to have a great second term?” and you’ll never guess who – none other than Calvin Coolidge (some might claim his second term wasn’t really that, as his “first term” consisted of serving out his predecessor’s term). As Folsom goes down the list of two-termers since Coolidge, it becomes clear that second terms have a way of being a letdown. While circumstances and events were different in each of those cases, there is little doubt that re-elected presidents usually have an eye on their legacy, which unfortunately often means the creation of projects and programs that saddle future generations with snowballing costs. It is a safe bet that Barack Obama will try to leave a progressive legacy, and not follow the restrained course of Coolidge, but a gridlocked Congress and the lack of a true mandate may mean that his leeway in shaping his legacy turns out to be somewhat constrained.  If a costly legacy is what he has in mind, there is hope that his second term will join the list of failed second terms that are a letdown for presidents but a respite for the nation.

Leaving no paper trail

As we await the publication of Amity Shlaes’ new biography of the 30th president, it is appropriate to reflect a little on how difficult Coolidge has made it for his biographers. He was guarded and careful not to reveal anything too personal to the biographers that had an opportunity to visit with him, occasioning Claude M. Fuess to lament a “secretiveness almost unparalleled among American statesmen.” In marked contrast to most other recent presidents, Coolidge deliberately chose not to leave a paper trail of memoranda or letters that might serve to enlighten future generations about his innermost views and intentions guiding his policies. It appears that most letters in his personal files were destroyed as per his express wishes, but his longtime secretary Ed Clark later stated in effect that the loss was not that great because it had not been Coolidge’s wont to write long letters to his contemporary political luminaries. The great bulk of the correspondence that remains to be studied at the Library of Congress or the Forbes Library consists of routine replies to private citizens or business entities, most of it from the desks of his secretaries.

I submit that these apparently well-considered decisions -not to write any revealing letters in the first place, and to have destroyed what little valuable correspondence there may have been- is yet another manifestation of Coolidge’s well-grounded humility. Refreshingly, Coolidge did not think of himself as a “great man,” and consequently he may have felt that his correspondence was not of any great value. Not for him the careful creation of a legacy of letters to guide latter-day historians and the general populace gently but firmly to an appreciation of his genius and greatness. He never claimed to have a grand vision for the country, and indeed his conservative (non-)interpretation of the Constitution caused him to refrain from even trying to leave a lasting imprint in terms of landmark legislation or grand projects forever to be associated with his name. Doing the day’s work, dealing with the business at hand, were the ways in which he approached and carried out his office. He scorned those Congressional contemporaries who were ever ready to spend public money, preferring to be prudent and thrifty instead of boldly spendthrift. Today, as many grand schemes have turned into bottomless black holes, we appreciate his stance for the greatness it truly represents.