LOPEZ: What surprised you most about Coolidge?
SHLAES: How modern he was. Coolidge and his treasury secretary Mellon loved new technology. Like JFK, C.C. divined that a new technology could lift the nation out of its doldrums; the only difference was that JFK’s new technology was space travel, and Coolidge’s travel by airplane.
I was also surprised by how much Coolidge appreciated networks. Early on, he became obsessed with railroads, in part, perhaps, because all the railroads chose to bypass his town, Plymouth Notch, with devastating consequences.
Final surprise: The parallels to Robert Frost. The two weren’t friends, but their lives crossed at Amherst College and so did their poetry. I’m indebted to Peter Stanlis for this insight. A worthy project would be to bring Coolidge back to Amherst; he’s somewhat obscured there by Frost.
LOPEZ: What were Coolidge’s greatest weaknesses?
SHLAES: Marital jealousy and the tariff.
LOPEZ: How do former president George W. Bush and Laura Bush “inspire”?
SHLAES: In the past year, working at the George W. Bush Foundation, I’ve gotten to know both the former president and first lady. President Bush shares a number of Coolidge’s traits: a visceral understanding of the need for tax cuts, an appreciation of business, a natural humility, and a great affection for his fellow man. Both Bushes love books, as the Coolidges did.
I think the Bushes would have liked President Coolidge, though I often wonder what nickname 43 would pick for 30. President Bush has great respect for his father, and so did President Coolidge, whose father was also in government, albeit in a smaller way.
Mrs. Bush resembles Mrs. Coolidge, or maybe it is the other way around, in their ability to host graciously. Both were teachers. Mrs. Coolidge had a real profession, she was trained to teach the deaf, and she loved libraries, as Mrs. Bush, a librarian, does.
LOPEZ: What could every American afford to learn from Coolidge?
SHLAES: Fame is worth less than service. My favorite period in Coolidge’s life is his time spent in the Black Hills, when, perhaps grossed out by Mount Rushmore, he turned away from the vanity of another presidential term. His tiff with Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum was really about whether a man, in his retiring years, should succumb to vanity, which Coolidge almost did.
Senator Selden Spencer told a story of a walk he took with Coolidge around the White House. Spencer wanted to cheer Coolidge up, so he pointed admiringly to the White House, asking, playfully, “Who lives there?”
“Nobody,” Coolidge replied. “They just come and go.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.