COOLIDGE- An American Enigma, by Robert Sobel, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 1998, 462 pp, $35, ISBN 0-89526-410-2.
Review by Del Meyer, MD
Organized medicine has increasingly become legislatively proactive; However, it does not fully understand the unintended consequences of law. Thinking that the government is the answer to medicine's problem rather than the cause, a historical view of government interference is appropriate. And it comes from an unlikely source--President Calvin Coolidge.
During the past 6 months, interest in the quiet hero of 75 years ago has reawakened. According to William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal, hope fluttered when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and pulled Coolidge's portrait from storage and placed it in the cabinet Room. But the imprimatur came during the 75th anniversary of Coolidge's inauguration, at the John F Kennedy Library in Massachusetts. The library's Sheldon Stern convened a well-attended revisionist conference, which was bolstered by the recent publication of the above book by Sobel as well as one by Robert Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. More than 540 members of the Coolidge faithful listened intently as speaker after speaker exploded the myths of a do-nothing Coolidge.
George F Will, in his Newsweek Column two weeks prior to the 75th anniversary quoted Walter Lippmann:
"Mr Coolidge's genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent activity. . . Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail. . . Mr Coolidge's inactivity . . . is a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life."
Will felt that Lippmann was on to something: some political inactivity is the opposite of lethargy. Often the real sloth is activity resulting from nonresistance to the constant urge to "do something."
Robert Sobel, in the first full-scale biography of Calvin Coolidge within a generation, shatters the caricature of our thirtieth president as a silent, do-nothing leader. He exposes the real Coolidge as the most Jeffersonian of all twentieth-century presidents-- he cut taxes four times, had a budget surplus every year in office, and cut the national debt by a third during a period of unprecedented growth. He won 17 of the 19 elections in which he ran. Although a Republican, he reversed the Republican centrist policies. There were Coolidge Democrats three-quarters of century before there were Reagan Democrats. A statistician once computed that Coolidge's sentences averaged 18 words compared with Lincoln's 27, Wilson's 32, and Teddy Roosevelt's 41--Coolidge was direct.
Coolidge's private secretary, C Bascom Slemp, gathered together the president's thoughts on various subjects in 1926, in a work entitled The Mind of the President. Slemp wrote:
He had reversed a recent tradition of the presidential office. For a quarter of a century our presidents have professed democracy but have practiced benevolent autocracy. They believed that they could advance the welfare of the nation better than the people could advance it. They announced what they declared to be progressive policies and tried to convert the people to these policies. They have tried to improve government from the top.
Coolidge believed that progress comes from the people, and that a national leader should not try to "go ahead of this majestic army of human thought and aspiration, blazing new and strange paths."
Historian Robert Ferrell, one of the most astute president-observers of our time, remarked that Coolidge was one of only three presidents in the twentieth century who did not contract "Potomac Fever," which is to say, become so enamored of high office as to be willing to sacrifice a great deal to obtain it.
Coolidge fought against direct federal assistance to farmers. He supported American businesses expansion overseas and renamed the "robber barons" of the progressive era the "captains of industry." Consumerism was filtering down to the masses, enriching their lives. The Harlem Renaissance captured the attention of the world as American blacks achieved high rates of economic growth and low rates of illegitimacy. This was the golden age of sports; the arts flourished; and Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic.
Coolidge's legacy is his deeds, not his words--which is how he would have chosen to be remembered. As physicians, our legacy is our deeds in patient care, not our words as formulated by organized medicine's political and administrative leaders. Sobel has put this in perspective at an important time in our professional lives as we face the crossroads in medical practice. We should strive to be the best American Physician and Surgeon that we can be. All else is for naught.