Sly as a fox…or a hedgehog?

fox_hedgehogOne of the earliest posts on this blog, since trashed, was one on the famous distinction made by Sir Isaiah Berlin that divided great minds into the “camps” of foxes and hedgehogs. This was in turn based on a fragment by the Greek philosopher Archilochos, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applied this nugget of wisdom to the world of writing and thinking, dividing famous poets and philosophers into two categories:
Foxes, who divide their interests among a wide variety of experiences and thoughts and who can’t be associated with a single big idea, and Hedgehogs, whose view of the world and reputation is founded on such a single big idea.

In Berlin’s view, examples of hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, whereas Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce are represented as foxes.

In the field of politics, an exemplar of a fox might be Jimmy Carter – a typical micro-manager, who famously even involved himself in the scheduling of the White House tennis court, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who focused his Presidency on a few major goals (“lower taxes”, “defeat communism”), set the agenda and then leaned back and let his staff do the work, who might be classified as a more or less typical hedgehog. As for Barack Obama, we may have to wait and see, although at the time of this writing, I fail to see the one overarching theme or goal of his Presidency, so he would seem to fall into the “fox” category. I’m certainly inviting comment and discussion when I venture that in presidents, it may be one of the signs of lasting greatness to focus on one big thing – independence, say, or the Union, or peace, or victory. Or, perhaps, normalcy and prosperity.

If we examine the life and career of Calvin Coolidge, I think we will come to the conclusion that he was of the hedgehog persuasion. While he certainly did “know many things,” the lodestar of his work as president undoubtedly was the theme of economy in government. This was his “one big thing” which occupied most of his time and was preeminent on his mind at all times. Nowhere did he wax more lyrical than when addressing the seminannual meetings of the Business Organization of the Government: he reports that he “rejoiced in keeping down the annual budget”, he avers that the real purpose of economy in government is nothing less than “the true and scientific progress of humanity”, he exults that “peace hath its victories no less than war.” The one cabinet member most influential and  closest to him was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and the one individual with whom he conferred longest and most often was the Budget Director General Lord, these two men being his closest allies in the fight against fiscal excesses.

Now, my literary and philosophical knowledge is not sufficient to analyse how fitting Berlin’s categorizations are. The point I want to make is that all of us human beings have to deal with getting through life successfully, given a limited set of resources. And those who single-mindedly invest those resources into a single goal or interest (the specialists or “hedgehogs”) will likely go farther in that field than those who spread their resources and interests far and wide (the generalists or “foxes”). Conversely, while they may end up more successful in their (narrower) chosen field, the hedgehogs miss out on many of the joys of dabbling in various hobbies, interests and domains.

Maybe the idea of hedgehogs being “better” or “wiser” than foxes (or vice versa) is not correct. Maybe, as is true in many things, there has to be a “goodness of fit” among the individual’s thinking style and his environment. There will be situations where the ability to juggle many things simultaneously is adaptive, whereas other situations may demand that one focuses on one or two big issues. From a lifespan perspective, it would seem foolish to focus on too few things too early in life, before you have had a chance to sample a wider selection of options and interests. Then, as life goes on, it may indeed be wise to focus on a few ideas and concepts that have turned out to make sense to you. Another possibility is that we need to be focused and goal-driven in our professional pursuits, while it will enhance our personal growth to have many interests in the private domain. Coolidge was a widely read man, with interest in philosophy, law, and the ancient languages. Detractors may say that his “one big thing” was to remain in whatever office he held, but it is true that in his case, the nation was lucky to have a “hedgehog” at the helm who was single-mindedly focused on the key goals of prosperity, solvency and peace.



Beware 2nd term ambitions

Just a short note today – this post by Tim Cavanaugh at 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.

Chester Arthur, anyone?

The good folks at Vanity Fair/60 Minutes (now there’s a pairing) give us (in October, mind you) their December 2011 poll; unfortunately, they give no clues as to the selection process by which they arrived at the five choices of former presidents, leaving the scientific credentials of this “poll” somewhat in doubt. Now, we’ll never know if there is a groundswell of support for a zombie Calvin Coolidge (note the Halloween topicality here) to take the reins. Anyway, there seems to be a recency effect at work; while some people actually do remember those halcyon Reagan years, few if any Americans living today were also around during William Henry Harrison’s short-lived presidency. 😉

Coolidge Slept Here

Apparently, today, March 15, is National Napping Day. If true, this certainly is a “holiday” not celebrated in Calvin Coolidge’s day; but the fact that Coolidge enjoyed an early afternoon nap whenever possible was widely lampooned by the wits of his era and has entered into the public perception of him just as much as his “Silent Cal” persona.

Of course, recent years have produced some scientific evidence that napping has numerous health benefits. While humans have somewhat varying “internal clocks”, there is usually a low point of cognitive and even motor capability somewhere around mid-day. Power naps, and the re-charging of energy they produce, have been the practice of outstanding people from Thomas Alva Edison to Ronald Reagan.

Beyond the health benefits of napping, isn’t there something soothing about a president who is confident enough in the ability of the nation to go on functioning while he gets in a few winks? What better way to proclaim a philosophy of “laissez faire” than to nod off for a little while in the early afternoon? Rather than overly involving himself in the day-to-day details, Coolidge (echoed 50 years later by Ronald Reagan) chose capable and trusted associates, delegated authority to them, and never overestimated his own importance. I’d rather have this type of president than one who burns the midnight oil and pores day and night over state papers, exhausting himself in the task of building his legacy. All in all, a president does less damage when he’s napping… or golfing, as Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner.

But given the growth of presidential power and responsibilities over the past 80-some years, and the possibly even greater and indeed unrealistic expectations of superhuman capabilities associated with the job, it is a wonder that contemporary presidents get any sleep at all, let alone a midday nap!

Calvin Coolidge onstage

Watch our very own Calvin Coolidge onstage, as portrayed by frequent and knowledgeable commenter Jim Cooke, in a presentation of “Reagan’s Heroes” at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Calvin Coolidge, aka Jim Cooke, is -you guessed it- third from right

As one of Reagan’s Heroes, Coolidge is joined onstage by, and interacts with,  Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy… and of course, Ronald Reagan “himself”.

Mitch Daniels – the Coolidgean candidate?

For a blog that normally focuses on Calvin Coolidge, I have sneaked in a number of mentions of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels lately. I was going to be all defensive about it, but on second thought I don’t think there’s a reason to be.

Because for someone who has been following U.S. politics from afar for more years than I care to recount, Mitch Daniels comes closer than any other prominent politician of either party in recent decades to the Coolidge mold, and that includes Ronald Reagan. In the years following the First World War, when the national debt hit record highs, Coolidge focused laser-like on reducing government spending, using the savings to pay back the debt and to reduce taxes. For numerous reasons, not all of which were of his own doing and some of which are eminently excusable, Reagan cut taxes first, but never seriously got around to cutting spending.The concept was “starve the beast“, but the beast was still getting fatter, as William Niskanen has observed and empirically demonstrated.

Coolidge favored the term “constructive economy”, indicating his intention not merely to make every tax dollar sweat, but also to be more innovative. And indeed, many times a crisis or budget crunch has precipitated creative and innovative ways to get by or even get better results while spending less. I see Gov. Daniels as just the right man for an update of this approach today.

Gov. Daniels appears to be inching closer to declaring his candidacy (and here), even while naming valid obstacles – most important among them his wife’s reservations about the grueling race and the impaired quality of life for himself and his family during, and especially after a successful run. Should he decide not to run, we who see him as ideally qualified, will have to respect that decision. As long as he hasn’t made that decision, I’ll keep hoping…and occasionally using this tiny corner of the world wide interwebs to tout him and his program 😉

Update: excellent speech given by Gov. Daniels at CPAC…love the phrase “morbidly obese government”!


Stay tuned… regular COOLIDGE blogging will resume shortly 🙂

He’s a murderous dictator, but he’s OUR murderous dictator

I hope I will be excused if I can’t help commenting on a contemporary, non-Coolidge subject for a change:

I find it more than a little ironic that so many conservatives in U.S. politics (Huckabee, Palin, Beck to name a few) are so afraid of “losing” Egypt, and it makes me glad that I have found myself more at home with Libertarianism. It is true that Mubarak is a “friend of the West” to some extent, financed by untold billions of financial and military aid. It is also true that he is a fairly unsavory dictator, with torture and oppression as his hallmarks.

Historically, no such situation is like the other. When the Shah of Iran was deposed, few expected a Shiite theocratic dictatorship, but it came. Conversely, when Ronald Reagan convinced Philippine dictator Marcos to step down without bloodshed, the result was a reliable albeit somewhat ramshackle democracy. Egypt may turn out one way or the other; my point is that the United States should stand with the people and against oppression, however geopolitically convenient the latter appear to be. Even more fundamentally, the U.S. should refrain completely from meddling in other nation’s internal affairs. The temptation is great for a superpower to fiddle with political factions in client states, but again, history is littered with unintended consequences of such fiddling. Slightly misquoting Calvin Coolidge, the business of the United States should be minding its own business.

Update: Interesting well-informed and well-intentioned debate over whether Egypt will be a democracy 12 months from now h e r e , while William Anderson cautions over at The Freeman that “Egypt is not ours to lose” and Anthony Gregory at The Independent Institute’s blog points out the parallels (and differences) between Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak.

New Update: Now that Mubarak appears to be gone, Ted Galen Carpenter at the Cato Institute weighs the pros and cons (mostly cons) of the U.S. siding with autocratic rulers.

Reagan Centennial

While Ronald Reagan often made fun of his relatively advanced age (“…as Benjamin Franklin once said to me…”), he was not, of course, a generational contemporary of Calvin Coolidge, although Coolidge was perhaps the first president who impressed himself on the young Ronald Reagan. It may be that Coolidge was not held in the highest esteem in the Reagan household; after all, his father was a Democrat who bestowed on his younger son the middle name “Wilson” in honor of Woodrow Wilson. But years later, when the adult Ronald Reagan began to interest himself in politics and economics, he grew ever fonder of the 30th president; and once he himself attained the nation’s highest office, he made the White House staff get the official painting of Coolidge out of mothballs and gave it a prominent place on the White House walls.

Now, this coming Sunday, Feb. 6, marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. There is a lot of excitement building at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Museum in Simi Valley, California. Share in the excitement by visiting the Ronald Reagan Centennial website with its many multimedia offerings on this remarkable man.

Me, I will be celebrating the memory of Reagan by visiting the Allied Museum here in Berlin (for the first time, too) and enjoying a festive lunch with my wife. We’ll be toasting the memory of Ronald Reagan, as I hope you will.

Civility ain’t what it used to be…or is it?

It may be a straining just a little to post on this blog a comment on the dreadful shooting of U.S. Rep. Giffords that left six people dead. The link between this horrific event and our political past lies in the present tendency to think that political discourse was better, wiser, cleaner, more respectful in the good old days. Responding to the many voices demanding that the use “inflammatory rhetoric” or graphic imagery should be restricted in political discourse, Jack Shafer, writing in Slate, has already ably refuted that argument (while Jacob Weisberg, also writing at Slate, exemplifies the weak argument that the heated rhetoric “made (the attack) more likely”). Pointed rhetoric, ad hominem attacks and slanderous graphics have, in fact, been a part of the political scene in the United States going back as far as George Washington and it has been the rare individual who has refrained from using such tactics or encouraged the use of such tactics by his supporters. I firmly believe, and the record bears me out, that Calvin Coolidge is one of those rare individuals who preferred to run on his record rather than smear or tear down his opponents. Still, and as Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner, negative rhetoric and graphic statements are protected by the First Amendment, distasteful as they may be to some, and the loss would be infinitely greater if well- (or not-so-well) meaning politicians started censoring free speech (even more).

While it is true that technologies such as the internet have made the distribution of borderline, paranoid and just plain crazy views easier, we just do not know what motivates a person to action. For all we know, Loughner and his ilk may get instructions to kill from perusing a roll of toilet paper. It so happens that the internet was not around when Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy were assassinated, not even when an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life not that long ago. The level of intensity of political debate is no indicator for the likelihood that a deranged individual carries out his or her plans. While we admire individuals who take the high road, we should not give in to the temptation to try and legislate away the low road – it will always be with us and is a part of political discourse. As Harry Truman used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Reagan on Coolidge 2:The sequel

As a little addendum to my recent post on Ronald Reagan and his esteem of Calvin Coolidge, here’s one further bit of Reagan on Coolidge – this one from the wonderful book “Reagan: A Life in Letters” :

During the holiday season of 1984, a Vermont correspondent had sent the just-re-elected Reagan a copy of Calvin Coolidge’s Christmas Greeting of 1927, which read

“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”

Reagan, as was his wont, wrote personally on January 29, 1985 as follows:

Thank you very much for sending me the copy of Calvin Coolidge’s Christmas Greeting of 1927. I’m delighted to have it. I happen to be an admirer of “Silent Cal” and believe he has been badly treated by history. I’ve done considerable reading and researching of his presidency. He served this country very well and accomplished much before speaking the words, “I do not choose to run.” Again, my thanks. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.

The presidency has changed immeasurably, and not for the better, between the days of Coolidge and those of Reagan. And Calvin Coolidge would have been flabbergasted at the extent and grandeur of the imperial presidency of today. But I still think it is interesting that the 40th president thought so highly of the 30th, who had for over fifty years been the subject of ridicule if not contempt by liberal historians. Quite a reversal, also, for Reagan who as a young man had been an ardent admirer of FDR – the very antithesis of Coolidge in so many ways.