Amity Shlaes is the chair of the board at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, the current events columnist for Forbes, and a bestselling author of seven books. Amity’s works include “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” and most recently “The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.” During her career, Amity was a columnist for Bloomberg News, a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and a writer for numerous publications including The New Yorker, Fortune, National Review, The New Republic and Foreign Affairs. Amity earned a Bachelor of Arts from Yale University.
In this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Amity take a deep dive into one of our nation’s most misunderstood presidents, Calvin Coolidge. They discuss the centennial celebration of his presidency, how the U.S. prospered during the Coolidge administration, the real reasons for the Great Depression, how misguided government intervention prolonged the nation’s pain, how Coolidge’s deep faith shaped his governing style, and Coolidge’s rationale behind the idea that it’s better to kill a bad law than to pass a good one.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I’m joined by Amity Shlaes, Chair of the Board at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. Amity has led many of the Coolidge Foundation’s initiatives, including essay contest for high school students and the current year-long centennial celebration of Coolidge’s presidency. Amity is also a bestselling author of books on the Great Depression, Calvin Coolidge and the Great Society. We’re going to hear from Amity about her work with the Coolidge Foundation, her extensive journalism and writing career, and some of the lessons she has shared with TFAS students and alumni as a guest lecturer. Amity, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat.
Amity Shlaes [00:01:02] Happy to.
Roger Ream [00:01:03] Glad to have you here. Well, let me begin by asking you what sparked your interest in 20th century economic and political history, after first writing a book about Germany?
Amity Shlaes [00:01:15] When I worked as a young person, I worked at The Wall Street Journal and mysterious things happened: bells went off when a company bought part of another company, there were all these institutions journalists referred to as NBER, the NLRB, the SCC, and when I went back and looked, I found these institutions were created in the past. Well, what were they and what were their purposes? Wall Street is a cavernous area with skyscrapers, so these institutions were like the skyscrapers of the mind that shaped the journal, and I began to be curious.
Roger Ream [00:01:55] Well, you spoke this summer to our students about this act of rebellion, as you called it, that prompted you to write a book, I think your book “The Forgotten Man.” How was it an act of rebellion?
Amity Shlaes [00:02:10] Well, rebellion is very important, but one does have to channel it against what one is rebelling and to what end? I know that you, as an undergraduate, Roger, struggled with the Great Depression, and I struggled.
Roger Ream [00:02:25] Not with depression.
Amity Shlaes [00:02:26] The Great Depression, and there’s multi-causal and it’s kind of mystified by professors, frankly. So, you’re not clever enough to understand the Great Depression unless you have a Princeton Ph.D. And for all the respect we have for Ph.D.’s, economics isn’t that hard. And I kind of got this feeling from my leadership at the Journal that the Great Depression was a no-go zone for me because, well, I didn’t have the Ph.D. in that area, and that kind of bugged me. So, that was like catnip, I was like: “well, I’m going to try and figure this out.” Why was it more than 10% of Americans were unemployed for a decade? Well, why was that? It can’t all be monetary math, and even the monetary math is not that hard. It’s more political error in the monetary area when you look at the Great Depression. So it was surely rebellion. I wanted to show others that I could treat this important economic period seriously and add some value.
Roger Ream [00:03:32] And obviously, you did very deep research on that era and that became part of your book “The Forgotten Man.” Could you talk a little bit about that and what you found in terms of what caused this, not only what caused the Great Depression, but what led it to continue for as long as it did?
Amity Shlaes [00:03:50] There are two things I’d like to say. One is that I had an advantage, which is the search ability of the PDF. So, imagine historians in the seventies and eighties, even nineties, getting microfiche on spools and rolling it to find an individual article. When we got through ProQuest, the search ability of the PDF, it gave us a great advantage, it allowed newer workers to really have a look at the period. You know, I practically read the entire newspaper New York Times for the decade at night. It got to be a habit. I became addicted to reading primary sources and that certainly gave me confidence and more importantly, knowledge. What I discovered was, one, the government made it worse. So, you say in one sentence, the government made it worse. What did it make worse? It made the Great Depression worse. The government made the Great Depression worse. And actually there were figures from the period who said that. I’m just publishing with AIER, the American Institute of Economic Research, a book of “New Deal Rebels,” new deal dissidents who said: “wait a minute, this is wrong.” One of the most compelling is Benjamin Anderson, which was read, I’m sure, by Rothbard, someone Rogers read. Put it very simply, and Anderson did, he said: “the government, the trouble in the preceding years, i.e. the Great Depression, was caused by the government playing God, and when playing God did not work, government played God more vigorously.” I like that line very much: “government played God, government played God more vigorously.” That is intervention which does not suffice to get the result one seeks, mandates more intervention, which is a questionable logic.
Roger Ream [00:05:34] Yeah. In fact, what I recall from Rothbard spoke of America’s Great Depression was the pressure the Hoover administration was putting on business to keep wages up at a time when they probably should have been cutting wages to avoid the layoffs that took place and the unemployment. And then you write a lot about that and about the Roosevelt administration putting in just so many regulations that, I mean, that you tell the stories of some people that said: “no, this is this is not right, we’re going to fight it,” like the Schecter family that went to the Supreme Court. That’s what I think makes the book so fascinating, that research you did, finding the forgotten men and women who had to face these tremendous government mandates. These are stories you uncovered in that research and going through the PDFs?
Amity Shlaes [00:06:23] Certainly, but the labor story is just common sense. You’re an employer, you don’t have much profit this year. Maybe you’re losing money. It’s a loss. It’s a red year. What do you do with your employees to raise their wages? Well, if you do, and that’s what President Hoover told companies to do, then you can employ fewer people because you don’t have money. Well, what would you rather do again? Common sense. You’d rather cut their wages. It’s not a very nice thing to do to people, but you’d rather do it so that you could keep them, so you don’t have the turnover, so that you are humane. What came in the late twenties was a new trend, a fad that said: “push wages up” and this came from the government and then what? The worker will have more money and they’ll buy back the car in Henry Ford language. He’ll shop and that will get the economy going. Well, maybe. But there are other ways to get the economy going and one of the results of that policy under Hoover and of course, under Roosevelt, the high wage policy, was much stiffer unemployment. So, it was a real tragedy, people had no job at all. We had high wages, patted ourselves on the back. In fact, the wages of the period, as Leo Hannan has shown, a scholar, were anomalously high. That is so tragic in a depression to have high wages. Why? We know why. It was political, but that meant also the high unemployment.
Roger Ream [00:07:57] Well, there’s this myth out there that’s commonly taught, I think, in schools that so many people have that the depression was ended by World War Two. What are your thoughts about that? I mean, do we credit this war for ending the Great Depression or did the Depression continue throughout the war?
Amity Shlaes [00:08:20] The real question about the Great Depression is not whether World War Two ended it. It is why did that depression last all the way to that war? So you go from 29 to 1939-40 when we could say we had recovery. That’s way too long. What a massive spending project like World War Two when the share of the government in the economy went 20%, 30%. Is it giving someone, I don’t know, a super shot, a narcotic shot, maybe heroin instead of tea? And of course, the economy is happy when it’s busy, but it’s not a peacetime basis for an economy to be perpetually managing through little injections. It’s kind of a happy doctor. The government is a happy doctor, and we still do that little stimuli here and there, bigger stimuli, massive stimuli, it works in the short run. After World War Two, there was a consensus that the New Deal hadn’t worked, there was a morning after, of course, after the spending of World War Two. You can see that, for example, in the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” where they all come home wondering whether they’ll get a job. Yeah, there was that feeling, people thought: “well, maybe a depression will ensue because we don’t have the massive spending of the war.” It didn’t, and in part because America, both parties realized that they didn’t want to repeat the New Deal of the 1930s. What is evidence of that in the legislation? Well, one was the amendment to restrict presidencies to two consecutive terms. Another was the Taft-Hartley law, which Truman vetoed, but his veto was overridden. That law basically neutered the Wagner Act, the big labor unions in the thirties. It said: “it created right to work, it codified to be precise, right to work states, states can opt out of strictures from unionization.” And that enabled a wonderful natural experiment whereby Americans saw the now-incontrovertible evidence that unionized places tend to create more jobs. And in my “Great Society” book I have that chart, but it’s sad we have an emotional connection to unions, but they don’t tend to promote the general welfare.
Roger Ream [00:10:42] Well, one of the things you learn about in most history courses is the impact going back to the Hoover period of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. When did that impact those high tariffs, and did that end after World War Two? Do we continue to have those high tariffs?
Amity Shlaes [00:11:00] Yes, after World War Two, we said: “we want free trade, more free trade.” We’re very selective and inconsistent about that, but we tended after. You know, Doug Irwin at Dartmouth has looked into that. I don’t think this Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Great Depression. It was a nasty thing to do. Why? It made goods more expensive here and worse yet, it antagonized fragile democracies. What if we said to Ukraine today: “we’re going to way increase tariffs on the only things you produce, we’re going to dramatically increase.” That’s what we did to Germany. That’s what we did to other countries. They had one thing they exported, a certain kind of typewriter, a certain kind of car, and we deprived them of the U.S. market. It’s particularly evil because we were telling these countries who had significant debt remaining from World War One: “the only way you can pay your debt is if you sell.” And then we said: “but not to us.” And there were massive retaliations by European governments we imposed Smoot-Hawley. I would say Smoot-Hawley contributed to the instability in Europe and strengthened Mussolini. So, that’s the most interesting part. It’s not a felicitous move in a downturn to increase taxes. I mean goods would have been cheaper, right? For people who didn’t have enough money, it was more of a political move. And the sad thing was Hoover knew that. Hoover was at Versailles, he knew what was wrong with the treaties at the end of World War One, and that we had sabotage, particularly Germany’s recovery, through an overly punitive treaty, that stabbed in the back, as Germans put it, and been sort of strong-armed by the French into doing that. He knew all that, and yet he went along because it was politics.
Roger Ream [00:12:51] Well, how do historians now view someone who’s dear to your heart, and one of my favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge? You chair the Coolidge Foundation. This is a big year for you, the centennial of his presidency. As historians have tried to revise the history of the twenties and tried to blame Coolidge in some way for what came after his presidency under Hoover and Roosevelt, because it was a great period for this country, the Coolidge presidency.
Amity Shlaes [00:13:24] In so many ways. Yeah, I think people don’t get it. First of all, it’s not so much a day that the book’s disc Coolidge, though they do occasionally it’s that is scarcely taught: Coolidge served between 23 and 29 and he presided over and enabled, I won’t say fostered because that’s too aggressive or create an environment in which business could thrive. The results were stupendous. Americans got jobs, Americans build skills, and productivity is a rather bland concept. What is that? Productivity. But that translated to productivity gains in that period.
Roger Ream [00:14:02] And higher wages.
Amity Shlaes [00:14:04] Saturday off, Saturdays. So, just think of Coolidge as the president who secured us Saturday.
Roger Ream [00:14:09] It wasn’t labor unions.
Amity Shlaes [00:14:10] It was productivity gains. So, it’s always a trade off there. And we became the America we are. At the Library of Congress, we’ll talk about Charles Lindbergh in that period. Suddenly, we could fly, we had cars, we were electrifying. The new dealers in their progressive push on electricity were playing catch up to the market, which was already basically doing what the New Deal claimed it would do, which is provide electricity to poor people. So, the decade is vilified, Coolidge is forgotten or randomly vilified. I noticed Robert Shiller, who’s a great economist at Yale, sort of said: “kind of Coolidge’s fault” in a sort of drive by TV commentary. I don’t think Professor Shiller thought that one through. The Depression was not Coolidge’s fault. Lately, Roger, there’s been a new, you know, in the current environment of social justice, there’s been a new assault on Coolidge. Again, kind of under informed by the fact that nobody ever learned about Coolidge in high school. What that assault is – they say: “well, Coolidge was part of a bigoted era.” They suggest with no evidence to speak of that Coolidge was a big bigot. No, he was a creature of his era and our bigotry led to prejudice around the world. There are isolated ways in which that is. So, for example, the American eugenics movement, favored largely by progressives, by the way, their work was read in Germany by Nazis or people who became Nazis. Our habit of sterilizing people. The Nazis knew about that. It was a terrible habit. It was wrong. But to smear leaders in the twenties politically, national leaders about the bigotry and murder in Germany is a real big stretch. I suspect one thing on people’s mind is the new Ken Burns documentary. It’s very long, almost 390 minutes. That’s a lot of investment from donors and by Mr. Burns, who’s a spectacular documentarian. I made this thing called “The U.S. in the Holocaust,” and the Holocaust part is useful. Americans have forgotten what happened in Europe, in the Holocaust. But the American part kind of says: “this is our fault because we restricted immigration.” We did restrict immigration in the twenties, also in the thirties, but nobody was planning to abet any Holocaust. And what Burns does, that seems to me a misrepresentation involving the manipulation of history and time, says the 1920s immigration law, in particular the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, enabled the Nazis. That’s just crazy. There’s this suggestion the U.S. didn’t do enough to help European citizens, to help Poland. Well, we actually did something, we chose to do the hardest thing, which is to prosecute a war at great cost, losing hundreds of thousands of people, you know, whose families know about this. You’ve seen the veterans who remain at D-Day. It’s not the choice some people would make to stop murder in Europe, but it is a very traditional choice and probably the only realistic choice in the case of Hitler. We couldn’t just send the Red Cross to Auschwitz in cabs or busses to rescue people. That was behind the lines, deep behind the lines of the war. We couldn’t even, you know, one of the things Burns invited people to speculate on is the counterfactual: “should we have bombed Auschwitz?” Well, first of all, we would have killed the prisoners. Second of all, we didn’t necessarily have that capacity, that reach, until very late in terms of air power, but the whole discussion in this Burns show, which is important because it’s being taught in schools, is this was somehow our fault, it shames Americans. We weren’t the ones to be shamed in World War Two. We were, for better or for worse, the rescuers with Britain.
Roger Ream [00:18:44] And you’ve written in the City Journal about this documentary, haven’t you?
Amity Shlaes [00:18:48] Yeah, well, I kind of got going because I did speak with some other presidential scholars, and there’s blame for Coolidge because of the 1924 law, which, by the way, his veto would have been overridden had he vetoed it. Coolidge did support immigration restriction. He was not a racist. If you support immigration restriction, that does not mean you have to be a racist, which is another thing that tends to be suggested nowadays. He was not. He thought America needed a pause. He disliked the immigration law; in particular, the part of it on the Japanese exclusion. And he said: “Japan will be angry,” because Japan lost face, to use an old term. When we wrote the Japanese exclusion, he said: “I would veto that if it were an isolated piece of legislation.” But anyway, actually, Coolidge comes off fairly well compared to his successor, Herbert Hoover, whom Burns kind of inflates the numbers on and says: “well, we deported large numbers, the word millions of Mexicans.” And the thing a student would take away: the federal government was the actor there. It wasn’t. It was local governments. The feds did some things with Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, and many went back, some voluntarily. But it was nowhere near the massive wrong that is the treatment of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the early thirties that Burns suggests, which is a pity. His movie on Huey Long is the best ever. I recommended it. I just rewatched it about populism, and there’s footage of Huey Long you see nowhere else. In our age, we just read about Huey Long. Maybe we saw one TV show once, and Huey Long was a good speaker. Just his ideas were wrong.
Roger Ream [00:20:39] Well, you have a big conference this month on Calvin Coolidge at the Library of Congress. I also had the opportunity to get an advanced view of your new documentary on Coolidge, which is not 390 minutes, but I guess about 75 minutes. It’s an excellent documentary you’ve put together on Calvin Coolidge. Are you going to be able to get that into schools, you think?
Amity Shlaes [00:21:03] Well, we hope so. If you’re in school, please contact the Coolidge Foundation and we will get you one. We also have a short version of 30 minutes. The version you saw, I believe it’s 64 minutes. That’s an awkward length for a class, and we just completed a half hour version for classrooms.
Roger Ream [00:21:23] Wonderful.
Amity Shlaes [00:21:24] We have two versions, actually, of the shorter abridgment. One abridgment is for New England. So, there’s an emphasis on Coolidge and his roots in Vermont and his Massachusetts roots because he was the best of New England. He was not. He was a swamp Coolidge. He was not high society – remember, in the past, while Vermont was the West, Vermont was where you went from Boston if you didn’t have any land, and that was Coolidge’s branch. But we also have a policy version that doesn’t have a name yet, but we call it Coolidge Policy for Classrooms that emphasizes more of Coolidge’s policies, which were amazing. He was also an amazing speaker. He has a – churchgoers and clergy will recognize – his extremely humble way of talking. He has short sentences, his natural length is 8 minutes like a sermon, or 12 minutes. I think he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever encountered. The author, Craig Fehrman, who will be at this conference, wrote a book “Author in Chief” about presidential authorial personalities and an opus. And he praises Coolidge’s writing: “men do not make laws, they do but discover them. There is no right to strike against the public safety, by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
Roger Ream [00:22:57] Boston police strike.
Amity Shlaes [00:22:59] And that was actually a telegram. I think, actually, that sentence is interesting because it’s got kind of a weird grammar. The prepositions are off. “There is no right to strike against the public safety, by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Well, you stop and you say, by of… But even when Coolidge has his own idiosyncratic syntax, it reflects the tension of the moment, so there were stops, comma, you know, the old telegraph language. You couldn’t put a comma, you had to write comma. That’s a beautiful line, as is his speech: “give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.”
Roger Ream [00:23:44] That’s forgotten today.
Amity Shlaes [00:23:45] That’s very nice. He started out a Republican, which means a progressive. He was in the party of Theodore Roosevelt, but Coolidge came to see that progressives wanted too many laws too fast. He wrote to his father: “it’s better to kill a bad law, much more important than to pass a good one.” Very interesting line. And remember, the political cycle in Massachusetts at that time was short. The governor had to be elected, reelected every year. So, the urge to act is great, and Coolidge was the opposite. He was a refrain. So, by the way, was Harding. If you go back and look at Harding’s language in speeches, he said: “don’t experiment. We have a proven system.” So, I like these forgotten presidents. They reward us for giving them some time. Warren Harding III is one of the speakers at the Coolidge Conference.
Roger Ream [00:24:47] Wonderful.
Amity Shlaes [00:24:47] He’s not direct. He’s a distinguished orthopedist, but he’s going to talk about what Harding did when he came into office in the early twenties.
Roger Ream [00:24:58] Well, let me ask you a little bit of what Coolidge did. I know he was very concerned about government spending and the budget and focused a lot of attention there. He felt that government needed to be within a budget and be small and not overtax, and that this would lead to economic growth in the economy. What specifically did he do during his presidency to spur economic growth? Was he successful in taming the appetites of Congress that likes to spend, spend, spend?
Amity Shlaes [00:25:29] We have a cartoon of that at the office of Coolidge, at his desk and all the men leaning over him saying: “spend.” He said: “no.” He practiced saying no, and he did. Coolidge was a maestro of the pocket veto, which is the veto where if a law passes just before vacation, you just do nothing about it. That was his style, the style of the appearance of inactivity. And then he would just let it die. And that pocket veto is wonderful because it’s hard to override. The lawmakers have to write a darn new law again and get it passed. And he didn’t even have a veto message for them. They just died. He had twin lion cubs and he named them Budget Bureau and Tax Reduction. That’s because, of course, to reinforce his commitment to budgeting simultaneous to tax cuts. He wasn’t quite a modern supply sider. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that they were operating in this period under a gold standard. And if a government, or imagine today, a good corollary is a state government. What happens to a state when it overspends? Its bond rating goes down. So, the U.S. government was like a state in the U.S. now. And if it overspent, its bond rating would go down. And what that meant was gold would flow out. Your other governments would come and take all from our treasury and force a recession on this, because gold was the monetary base. We don’t have quite that system now. We think with perpetual impunity because we’re the currency of reserve. But that can change. You know, the pound sterling was the currency of reserve until around Coolidge’s time. So, Coolidge had a necessity, which was a valuable tool for him to budget cut. I think of it more as a governor who happens to be serving as president, and you’ll understand it better. He actually left office with the budget lower than when he came in. Not per capita, lower. How do you do that with the economy growing 4% and the population increasing? So, that’s more like a governor. You think of Mitch Daniels, you know, fighting very hard to lower Indiana’s budget or at least restrain growth. That’s the way Coolidge saw it, and because of the international monetary system, that’s the way it was at the point. But he also understood that consumption is not the story. So, nowadays the government has a modern version of the under-consumption theory, and it says: “well, consumers aren’t buying enough.” You hear it every day on television. Consumers are 70% of the economy. That’s a little crazy. He was interested in the supply side. He said: “what’s going to make producers produce better so we can get Saturday off and what’s going to unfetter them to come up with things?” Supply does create its own demand. And he did that through the tax cuts which he led and which were dramatic. Coolidge’s tax cuts weren’t “snap your finger overnight, we have a 25% rate.” He had plenty of opposition, including with his own party, which was splintering. But he did cut taxes and eventually, after several campaigns, got the top marginal rate down to 25%, which is lower than Ronald Reagan’s from the fifties, the seventies in World War One. Tremendous fee requiring tremendous amounts of political capital. I think one reason Coolidge was able to do that was he had a fantastic ally in Andrew Mellon, the treasury secretary, but also because he never squandered political capital. He lived virtuously, not because he always wanted to be virtuous, nobody knows whether he wanted that, but because he didn’t want to squander political capital. The Bushes talked about that too, president Bush. Harding, who was a wonderful man to me, resembling President Clinton a bit, squandered political capital because his private life and his personal errors got in the way of his political policy objectives.
Roger Ream [00:29:37] Well, I spoke with Mitch Daniels recently on this podcast, and it was released in mid-February. Since you mentioned him being someone who was like Coolidge in his governorship, I mean, we have such serious financial issues we face as a country: chronic runaway deficits, spending, national debt, inflation now. Is it possible to elect another person like a Calvin Coolidge to the White House?
Amity Shlaes [00:30:10] The first thing to do, which TFAS does, is educate young people about this, so they know what to vote for. Education does not happen in campaign commercials. You have to educate before campaign commercials and people have to come to their own opinion. You can’t even educate by cheerleading: “we all believe this.” No. People are autonomous, they have to come to their own view over time, sometimes 10 or 15 years, to usually in the end, events work together. Events conspire.
Roger Ream [00:30:46] Crisis.
Amity Shlaes [00:30:47] To cause a crisis. What are possible crises? Not that we want to wish them. The dollar be challenged by a non dollar. There’s no reason that can’t happen. And then all of a sudden, wait a minute, our dollars are worthless. So, we’ve got to do something. As in the case of Mrs. Thatcher in Britain, Margaret Thatcher would never have been elected had Britain not gone through such a rough time prior and people had had enough with militant labor unions. I feel in this show we’re being a little hard on the unions. I like some things unions do. They give value to America. For example, when they organize insurance and they’re a large actuarial pool and they make it cheaper, they tend to discourage litigation of the lottery variety. If you lose, if you’re hurt, there’s a chart that says what you get. They support workers in rough times. They look out for workers’ interests. I’m just talking here when I criticize unions about the anti-worker effects of belligerent unionism.
Roger Ream [00:31:55] Well, let me ask you about the Coolidge Foundation. Since you talked about the importance of education of young people, and it doesn’t happen in campaigns. You’ve got a remarkable program with high schools and high school students. Could you talk about that?
Amity Shlaes [00:32:11] Well, it’s no more remarkable than your programs, but we do something similar to TFAS. We have a scholarship to honor Coolidge. The scholarship is a full-ride to any college the student gets into. So, that’s a large investment. We pay the entire tuition and costs of that student.
Roger Ream [00:32:27] No matter where they go.
Amity Shlaes [00:32:28] No matter where they go. High schoolers compete for that scholarship. Currently, we have, I believe, 20,000 students registered to apply for four scholarships, but the scholarship itself, it’s bigger than that, we hope. The scholarship’s an academic merit scholarship. And in a period when merit is being questioned, we don’t question merit. We do believe numbers tell us something, where a student who has five 5’s on the AP ought to be real proud. It’s like a Rhodes in that way. But everyone who applies must write several essays about Coolidge policy. So that’s our way of introducing Coolidge to serious students. You know who you are. Thoughtful students. You don’t have to marry Coolidge or become a Coolidge. We have students who’ve won the Coolidge, who probably wouldn’t vote for Coolidge and might not vote for anyone like him today. This is not a political choice. Our goal is just to acquaint people who are thinking a lot, particularly they tend to be science candidates with Coolidge, so they can consider them later. Coolidge was a great supporter of innovation. The top hundred of the candidates, more or less of these – it ends up being three or four thousand who complete the application, become Coolidge Senators, which is a summer program, and you come and learn about Coolidge. Again, you don’t have to marry him or become a Coolidge. We would never ask that of an autonomous young person. We just think they get to know each other and their friends and they get to know Calvin Coolidge, and now we have a most beautiful setting in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, which is the president’s birthplace maintained by the state of Vermont. And Senator Welch will be at this conference, the new senator from Vermont. We’re blessed with that and to have the state of Vermont as a partner. So, I’m sure TFAS has taken students up there. It’s isolated and beautiful, and there are a lot of interesting colleges, by the way, for young people. Williams is nearby, UVM is nearby, Amherst, Dartmouth is nearby, and so many places to visit if families are contemplating a sort of America trip in the look at colleges period, The Notch is a great place to go, Plymouth, particularly in summer. We also have Coolidge House in Washington where senators come and learn about Coolidge. So, these senators over time have mounted. Now, there are more than 500 senators and senator alumni. And that program is a way of keeping kids interested in philosophy, in the values for which Coolidge stood, which is our charter, and in providing some of the education that high schools might not be providing.
Roger Ream [00:35:35] Yeah, it makes me wonder if any other presidential foundations do as much to educate the rising generation about the president.
Amity Shlaes [00:35:42] Oh, The Reagan Foundation probably does, or the groups delated, right?
Roger Ream [00:35:46] Perhaps. We work with the Reagan Foundation, but it’s a program we co-sponsor with them to educate young people about presidents and their leadership styles. It’s not specifically focused on Reagan. They have probably other programs that do that, and they have the beautiful library in California.
Amity Shlaes [00:36:02] And we would love to partner with them. We have not yet.
Roger Ream [00:36:05] But I think what you’re doing is filling a great void in terms of educating the rising generation about the ideas that Coolidge stood for.
Amity Shlaes [00:36:14] In the Coolidge Foundation, we do, I suppose, work on communication. That is, we have a debate program. So, kids argue for Coolidge and they argue against him and they get prizes. This year they’re debating, for example, whether Coolidge should be in the top ten instead of in the twenties in ranks among presidents, that’s an exciting topic. I believe personally, which is why I give my life to the Coolidge Foundation, that the principles should not be doctored to make them more palatable or secondary to the communication effort. The principals matter more than the communication. I believe if you build a good mousetrap, people will come. I’ve been proven wrong a million times. The world will be at your door. I still believe it. You’ve got to have the argument for, say, lower taxes or for faith, which Coolidge cared about, and not just say: “well, I got to be a good communicator” because television people teach us, it’s all about the communication. Communication is important, but it’s secondary to the soundness of ideas.
Roger Ream [00:37:11] Well, since you mentioned faith, one of Coolidge’s speeches, it’s my favorite, was his oration on the 150th anniversary of July 4th, Independence Day, a speech I think he gave in Philadelphia. It’s a remarkable speech. I think every high school student should read in their civics class. But in that speech, Coolidge talked a lot about the religious underpinnings of the American experiment and of the founders’ views. He says something in there, which I’ve kind of wondered the source of it, but he mentions that Thomas Jefferson had commented, maybe written about the fact that most of what he had learned about democracy in American institutions of democracy, he learned at church meetings.
Amity Shlaes [00:38:02] Yes, and I don’t know the answer to that. Although we do have college scholars such as William Hettinger, who will come back at our foundation. I am very eager to see Coolidge’s notes in the preparation for this speech, which I don’t know if they exist or where they are. But Coolidge said in that speech about the declaration and he moved words around. He knew European languages. He liked inflected languages. About the declaration, there’s something that’s exceedingly restful: “If all men are equal, that is final. No progress can be made from that.” This was his way of saying we don’t need a giant progressive change in our culture to learn to honor where we still failed to human and civil rights. He also said, not there, but around personal rights and property rights are about the same thing, which I like very much. What’s interesting about that speech is you see how far can a president go on faith, on the faith of topic. That speech was for the 4th of July. That 4th of July was the anniversary. It was important. Coolidge was born on this day. It was his birthday.
Roger Ream [00:39:11] It was his birthday.
Amity Shlaes [00:39:11] Coolidge gave that speech on July 5th. Why? Because July 4th was Sunday. So, that tells you it all. He said, “Leave space for things of the spirit.” He was not a holy, pious man. He had a quiet piety, but he was not impious. He was very respectful. And I think he’s a good model for that. I would like to say he was the descendant of Edmund Burke, but I don’t find much evidence that he read Burke very intensely. I find it was in his classes. But let’s just say he channeled Burke. For example, when Burke gave a very famous speech at Bristol, now you’re testing my memory, where he basically said: “I was elected from here, but I represent all of Britain. I’m not your ambassador. I’m essentially voting what’s good for the polity, and Bristol voted Burke out.” Coolidge had a similar moment because there was a flood in the Mississippi, the great flood of 1927, flood of the Mississippi. Coolidge didn’t go as president and that was questionable. Think of President Bush with Katrina. It was questioned and Coolidge didn’t go because he wasn’t sure a president should jump in there. He’s not commander in chief at home. And Senator Thaddeus Caraway said: “well, if there were a flood in Vermont, he would go, he’s from Vermont.” And then, this is in the film, kind of divine retribution, there was in Vermont that very year, and Coolidge didn’t go. What politician would not fight for his original constituency, his home? But Coolidge understood that he didn’t want to show favoritism. And one Vermonter commented in the paper he can’t do for his own what he didn’t do for others. So, that’s Coolidge’s, I think of it as his “Burke moment.” And I’m waiting for the discovery of Coolidge’s college essay on Edmund Burke. Please buy it on Ebay if you find it and I will buy it from you as long as the Coolidge Foundation can afford that.
Roger Ream [00:41:31] Well, Amity, there’s a rumor that you’re working on another book. I think the working title is “The Silent Majority.” I don’t know if this is true.
Amity Shlaes [00:41:39] That sounds good.
Roger Ream [00:41:39] I would like to know what book project you may have in the works.
Amity Shlaes [00:41:43] I do regret not naming “Great Society” – “Silent Majority.” Why? In Silent Majority, Great Society is about the sixties, the period of the Great Society, a new history. Silent majority was a phrase Richard Nixon used, and I thought it would be confusing.
Roger Ream [00:42:01] A book on Nixon.
Amity Shlaes [00:42:02] A book on Nixon. I should have called the book Silent Majority, and explained in the intro that this phrase has a long – but I am working, and I may yet write Silent Majority. I’m working on two books. One is a history of the Gilded Age, and enterprise of that period, and the government progressivism. But it won’t be called Gilded Age because again, that’s sort of an ironic title. I mean, I wouldn’t go along with the idea that the age was gilded, i.e. artificially rich. It was a genuine power, the economy in that period because of the people behind it. And I’m also writing a short history of the 20th century economy for college students that basically says: “this was a gift, don’t take the economy as a given.” The economy is a fragile animal, as in the Great Depression period, when recovery stayed away for ten years. And what made the economy give us these gifts in each decade? And I’m taking counsel on how to format that, Roger.
Roger Ream [00:43:07] Oh, so that’ll cover the whole century.
Amity Shlaes [00:43:09] But that should be short.
Roger Ream [00:43:10] Yeah, that could be a great resource for young people. So, when that comes out, we’ll want to use it in our programs.
Amity Shlaes [00:43:16] Decade by decade. Hero by hero.
Roger Ream [00:43:18] Yeah, and obviously very different responses at different times by government to economic upheaval or crises. Wonderful. You’ve had a distinguished career in journalism. You worked at The Wall Street Journal on the editorial board there, you’ve written for lots of publications: Bloomberg, Forbes, you freelance and submit pieces elsewhere. I’d like to just touch on your journalism career because many of our alumni are in journalism careers or aspire to go into journalism careers. I don’t know if you can offer general advice to them, but did you enjoy that part of your career?
Amity Shlaes [00:44:03] Of course I did.
Roger Ream [00:44:04] Because it was in the U.S. and Europe, right?
Amity Shlaes [00:44:06] Right, I was at The Wall Street Journal 17 years, I was at The Financial Times five years. I was at the Bloomberg five years, too. So, what I recommend is get skills. Journalism is sort of the means, but you need the skills. So, learn accounting, learn economics, learn a foreign language, learn podcast technology. Those things. And never count on journalism to be a career. It isn’t. Most of the time it’s a medium that’s changing so fast, the jobs go away. So, get skills. I think one thing that helped me a lot was I learned German, so I worked as a foreign correspondent and that gave me a door to go through into Germany. I wish I knew Russian, really. I wish I knew better French. I wish today I knew Spanish. Those things are important. I wish today I knew national accounts and accounting. I’m not saying I’m regretful, but things I mentioning would be useful, would have been very helpful to have a law degree. Law degrees are expensive. So, you go to get a law degree and then you don’t practice. It seems an inefficiency, but law informs life. You know, the best way to teach history is through what happened with laws and trials. David Patricia is working on a book and I thought that’s a good idea to tell: “The 20th century through the trials like the Scopes trial.”
Roger Ream [00:45:38] The Schecter trial.
Amity Shlaes [00:45:38] Or the Schecter trial. We didn’t get to that. We can come back. But I don’t think journalism alone is really a profession. And that’s a little offensive to say that we train journalists. But I always counsel “Max out the skills.” Even when you become a veterinarian, you can be the greatest animal writer.
Roger Ream [00:46:00] Oh, that’s an excellent advice.
Amity Shlaes [00:46:01] Also writing. There are years when one writes poorly and years when one is a better writer. That has to do with circumstance, assets, health. Some years it’s better to be fallow as a writer and to just practice a trade. I think of the writer Louis Auchincloss, whose day job was trusts in states as a lawyer. Inspiration comes from daily life, and daily life sometimes is more than teaching. It might be as a doctor or a lawyer or, I don’t know, an oil worker in the field on a rig. The journalism is just there some of the time they’re writing and saying: “I’m a writer and I write” also causes one to ask oneself, is one gifted enough to be called themselves a writer? I always feel sorry for people who say I’m a writer because then they’re wondering when they say: “Am I really gifted?” Well, writing is just like building a house. Some are better than others. They’re building houses. It takes practice. Some are truly genius architects. Others are just adequate. Adequate is good enough, but you can’t sort of delve into yourself and wonder whether you can write. That’s a fool’s errand.
Roger Ream [00:47:12] Well, that’s great advice. I mean, we do require our journalism students to take economics and we encourage them to learn course of statistics, finance, accounting. You’ve added to that list with foreign languages being so important.
Amity Shlaes [00:47:27] I’m sorry to drill down. They’re afraid of that because, guess what? In statistics they might get a C and they’ve told themselves they’re a writer, right? So take statistics in a school where you’ll be less intimidated in the county college, in night school, you know, buy a course on the Internet. Take it three times. It won’t kill you to take it three times. I’m not the best in math, so I won’t take math. That wrong. Take it in a way that you’re comfortable with. The one who humiliates you so much that you drop it. Young people say: “It’s our fault.” We funnel them into their comparative advantage. She’s a writer. He’s a writer. And let them drop off too early in the basics.
Roger Ream [00:48:11] Yeah, we used to collect statements by very successful journalists who said things like – including a major network anchor – who said: “I really regret I never took economics.” And I think your advice to young journalists is so important and hopefully they’re listening in and will do that, take these other courses, learn other things.
Amity Shlaes [00:48:33] Big part of my economics school was The Wall Street Journal.
Amity Shlaes [00:48:39] Think of Moby Dick whaling was my Yale College and my Harvard. Well, The Wall Street Journal was my Yale college of my Harvard for econ. But also going overseas. If you go to a place where the money doesn’t work, you begin to understand monetary. That would be a communist place. Venezuela now, or a war zone. Ukraine money doesn’t work. That will explain a lot to you. So, the travel broadens, but only if you prepare for the travel and think about what you’re watching.
Roger Ream [00:49:11] Well, I had the great privilege of sharing the platform when you were awarded a Bradley Prize. You’ve been given the Bastiat prize, which is a great recognition of your writing. It’s really remarkable what you’ve done in your career, Amity. I know we’re running out of time. I did bring some of your books here, “The Forgotten Man,” which I hope people will still buy and read. I think it’s sold over 250,000 copies, your biography on Coolidge, which has also been turned into a graphic biography that was a bestseller, and your Great Society book. So, all among the four bestsellers you’ve written, you’re helping provide important history that too often isn’t being taught in our schools. A book on the Gilded Age is very much needed, so I can’t wait till I see it.
Amity Shlaes [00:50:04] I’m taking submissions for a happy, evocative title.
Roger Ream [00:50:09] Okay.
Amity Shlaes [00:50:11] Please let me know at the Coolidge Foundation. But, you know, part of what we’re also doing, and Roger and I both do this, he sat with me at the Bradley Prize, we were in the same class, is build institutions as alternates to other institutions. One thing about TFAS, you don’t carpet others, right? You’re not an anti institution. You’re a pro institution. You’re letting young people pick, and that’s pretty rare. So, I compliment right back at you.
Roger Ream [00:50:40] Well, thank you, Amity. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you today. Congratulations on the great work of the Coolidge Foundation, this fabulous two day conference you’ve put together at the Library of Congress and your new documentary. You can count on us doing all we can at The Fund for American Studies to promote that, to get our students to watch that, and to learn about a great president. So, thank you.
Amity Shlaes [00:51:01] Thank you.
Roger Ream [00:51:02] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.
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