Every President gets to choose the portraits that hang in the White House during his term. By now, too, every President is aware that his choices honor his heroes and hint at the direction he intends to follow. Those at the top of his list are put in the Oval Office, those next in line in the Cabinet Room. Barack Obama has put Lincoln in the Oval Office, a decision that surprised no one in what it said about how he views the historical moment embodied in his presidency. Nixon put Woodrow Wilson in the Cabinet Room, a choice that seems a bit odd at first blush—but then Nixon was a more complex man than our highly skewed historical redaction of him suggests. A decade later, Ronald Reagan put George Washington and Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, and Dwight Eisenhower and the long forgotten and little esteemed Calvin Coolidge in the Cabinet Room. There could have been no greater surprise among presidential scholars than if he had chosen Millard Fillmore.
But then, they may have reasoned, who else would he have chosen? James David Barber, in The Presidential Character, predicted in 1980 that Reagan’s character type would be “passive-positive” with a “tendency to drift.” Given Coolidge’s reputation for inactivity, who else would a passive-positive President have preferred? This interpretation also fit neatly into one of the more pervasive myths surrounding Reagan during his time as Governor of California and as President: that he was just a B-grade movie actor, passive, easily manipulated, with his staff at the Governor’s mansion and the White House the functional equivalents of his old film directors.
Much merriment was evoked by the story that his staff painted the outlines of his feet on the various platforms from which Reagan had to speak—as if he would have fallen over the edge without this help. It somehow escaped these critics that this device, hardly unique to Reagan, enables the cameras to get the best background and angles. Journalist Gail Sheehy even compared Reagan to Chauncey Gardiner, the mentally challenged, television-watching anti-hero played by Peter Sellers in Being There, whose banal comments, all of them derived from gardening, become so popular that he is considered as a presidential candidate.
As with earlier criticisms of President Eisenhower, the notion of Reagan’s supposed passivity has been undermined by subsequent research. “I do not subscribe to the many theories of Reagan’s passivity”, wrote Richard Reeves in President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (2005). “The President Reagan I found in the course of my research was a gambler, a bold, determined guy. . . . I do not think Reagan was an unwitting tool of a manipulative staff. Quite the opposite.” Indeed, time and again we see Reagan acting with almost ruthless determination to achieve the goals that he deemed important—such as his decision to buck most of his advisers and a scornful intellectual establishment in order to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative, even when threatened with the failure of his 1986 summit with Gorbachev at Reykjavik.
How, then, do we square this portrait of Reagan with his decision to put the supposedly supine Coolidge on the wall of his Cabinet room? The answer requires some background, but it gives us a perhaps unexpected answer to one of the seeming contradictions of Reagan’s presidency, and to its ultimate triumph.
Like many myths, that of Reagan as the passive, detached, hands-off executive had an element of truth. He often baffled his staff and associates, in the words of aide Martin Anderson, in that he “made no demands, and gave almost no instructions.” In his book, Revolution (1988), Anderson writes:
Essentially, he just responded to whatever was brought to his attention and said yes or no, or I’ll think about it. At times he would just change the subject, maybe tell a funny story, and you would not find out what he thought about it, one way or the other. His style of managing was totally different from the model of the classic executive who exercised leadership by planning and scheming, and barking out orders to his subordinates. . . . [H]e made decisions like an ancient king. . . . He just sat back in a supremely calm manner and waited until important things were brought to him. And then he would act, quickly, decisively, and usually, very wisely.
So how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction between the President who waits like an ancient king for important issues to be brought to him and the President who acts decisively in pursuit of his goals?
The beginning of an answer is that Reagan’s views on presidential management remain so unfashionable that they have become almost unfathomable. We live in an age of presidential activism. Power is increasingly concentrated in the White House, where the President appears on television almost every day, speaking on almost every topic; and where, in addition to the usual structure of Chiefs and Deputy Chiefs of Staff, Counselors, Assistants and Deputy Assistants and Assistant Deputy Assistants to the President, there are now economic czars, green jobs czars, executive pay czars, car czars, cyber czars—enough czars in the White House alone to have ruled Russia for a millennium. The prevailing guru on this particular mountain peak is still the late presidential scholar Richard Neustadt, whose hero was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For Neustadt, Presidents had to hoard power, divide it and sub-divide it, even to the point of total confusion, so that they alone would be the ultimate arbiter. Roosevelt, for example, would give the same job to several different officials, or divide the task so that no one person could do it, and then graciously, genially step in to resolve the ensuing chaos. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were the disciples of this view of presidential power, and the Vietnam War was one of its legacies.
If this was the prevailing doctrine, where did Reagan get his own distinctive style? Reeves notes that Reagan read Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography before he became President and again while in the White House. In Calvin Coolidge (2006), biographer David Greenberg notes, “Throughout his two terms in office, Reagan perused Coolidge speeches and biographies.” Yet in all the many books written about the Reagan presidency nothing has been said about why Reagan would pay particular attention to Coolidge. This may reflect the lack of enthusiasm in the academic community for the intellectual qualities of either man; one doesn’t dig for diamonds in a dumpster.
And it is true that at first reading, or if, say, you read only the first hundred pages or so, you might well drop Coolidge’s Autobiography and look for something else—anything else, almost—to read. Initially at least, Coolidge shows little feeling for words. For all his fond evocations of his native Vermont countryside, the landscape of his prose is more like that of Kansas—mostly flat and rather dry, with one modest, uninformative sentence succeeding the next. Those with whom Coolidge worked during his early years, or under whom he studied, are usually described as possessed of the most elevated motives or the most remarkable capacities. Coolidge himself, we are happy to discover, is patriotic and possessed of a Jeffersonian belief in the capacity of the people, when given the right information, to make the right decision. He has an unabashed readiness to state the obvious: “What men owe to the love and help of good women can never be told.” There is an occasional (a very occasional) glimpse of wintry New England humor, as when Coolidge notes, “It has become a custom in our country to expect all Chief Executives from the President down, to conduct activities analogous to an entertainment bureau. No occasion is too trivial for its promoters to invite them to attend and deliver an address.”
There is much more to the Autobiography than this, however, particularly when Coolidge gets to the presidential years in the latter half of the book. Time and again, we see similarities to Reagan’s approach to the presidency. It has often been remarked, for example, that Reagan was wholly devoid of the pomposity and sense of self-importance of many politicians. Here is Coolidge on that subject: After observing that he was “well aware that there were many others who were better qualified” for the office than he, Coolidge wrote,
It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one that can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.
Reagan echoed Coolidge many years later in reply to a question from his former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, on how he viewed his leadership: “I have never thought of myself as a great man”, he replied, “just a man committed to great ideas. I’ve always believed that individuals should take priority over the state.”
In the course of explaining his decision not to run for another term, Coolidge makes one of the most candid assessments ever made by a President of the dangers of power:
It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshippers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. . . . They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant. . . . The chances of having wise and faithful public service are increased by a change in the Presidential office after a moderate length of time.
The issue of running for a third term did not, of course, face Reagan, but it is fair to conclude that he would have agreed with Coolidge’s assessment. He might even have been stung by opponents who charged that Reagan himself, in his handling of the Iran-Contra issue, showed some signs of that carelessness and arrogance to which Coolidge referred.
The two Presidents clearly saw eye-to-eye on taxes, as well. As a young boy, Coolidge had accompanied his father when the latter actually collected taxes from individuals, in the way these things were done before we enjoyed all the pleasures of having them deducted from our pay before receiving what was left. “I knew”, Coolidge wrote, “that when taxes were laid some one had to earn the money to pay them.”
“I’d always thought of Coolidge as one of our most underrated presidents”, wrote Reagan in his own autobiography, An American Life (1990). And Reagan cited Coolidge’s record on taxes and the economy:
He came into office after World War I facing a mountain of war debt, but instead of raising taxes, he cut the tax rate and government revenues increased, permitting him to eliminate the wartime debt and proving that the principle mentioned by Ibn Khaldoon about lower taxes meaning greater tax revenues still worked in the modern world.
But there was very likely more to Reagan’s admiration for the Autobiography than any pleasure he might have felt in finding a kindred spirit. Given Reagan’s lack of familiarity with Washington, he may also have been looking for some on-the-job training. Coolidge acknowledged that he himself had needed such training. Referring to his failure to win the presidential nomination in 1920 and his election as Vice President that year, he wrote:
I have always been of the opinion that this turned out to be much the best for me. I had no national experience. What I have ever been able to do has been the result of first learning how to do it. I am not gifted with intuition. I need not only hard work but experience to be ready to solve problems. The Presidents who have gone to Washington without having held some national office have been at great disadvantage.
Reagan had less national experience than Coolidge, who had at least been Warren Harding’s Vice President for more than two years before succeeding him on Harding’s death. And while Reagan was one of the least communicative of men with respect to his personal feelings, he must have been deeply conscious of this. In an unusual moment of self-revelation in the course of his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination against President Gerald Ford in 1976, he told Martin Anderson, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not sure I’m qualified to be president.”
The best-known example of what Reagan learned from Coolidge about how to use the power of the Oval Office derived from the incident that first brought Coolidge to national attention: his handling of the Boston police strike while Governor of Massachusetts in 1919. The strike had its origin in the proposal of the Boston policemen to form a union and to join the American Federation of Labor. This contravened Police Department policy, and the leaders were brought before the Commissioner of Police, tried and removed from office, upon which three-quarters of the force went on strike. That night, groups of men broke shop windows and stole goods, and the remaining police were unable to cope with the violence. The Mayor suspended the Commissioner of Police, called up the State Guard of Boston, and called upon Governor Coolidge to send more troops.
In response, Coolidge restored the Commissioner to office, called up the entire State Guard to restore order, which it did, and directed the policemen to obey the Commissioner’s orders to return to work or else forfeit their jobs. In the course of this turmoil, Coolidge issued a statement that became famous, in which he affirmed that “there is no right to strike against the public safety, by anybody, anywhere, any time.” According to his own account, he was not without sympathy for the protesting policemen. He tried to ensure that policemen’s families received assistance, and he even helped some of those who lost their jobs to find other work, but he refused to allow them again to become policemen.
The analogies between Coolidge’s actions in this strike and Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controllers’ strike during the first months of his presidency have been widely noted. The controllers’ union had been one of the few to support Reagan in 1980. Early in the new Administration, after negotiations had been going on for some time, the president of the union announced that the membership had rejected the Administration’s offer and were going back to their original demands, observing that he expected this illegal strike to succeed because “[t]hey cannot fly this country’s planes without us.” When the Administration refused to increase its offer, the president of the union scheduled a strike to begin August 3, 1981. That same morning Reagan, citing Coolidge’s example to his staff, went to the Rose Garden, where he read a statement he had written himself:
Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: ‘I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the government of the United States or any agency thereof.’ It is for this reason I must tell those who failed to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Back inside the White House, Reagan told his staff, “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry for them. I certainly take no joy out of this.” But the thousands of calls and telegrams that came into the White House supported the action by ten to one, and Washington Post columnist David Broder concluded, “The message is getting around: Don’t mess with this guy.” According to Reeves, we now know that this action deeply impressed the Soviet leadership, as well.1
There was another, perhaps more surprising, similarity between the two Presidents. Both laid great emphasis on bipartisanship. Of course, most Presidents, given the division of power between the President and the Congress, will make some bow to the other side. But Coolidge went further than this, particularly before coming to Washington. While he was President of the Massachusetts Senate, a powerful position in the Commonwealth, he believed, according to his Autobiography, that it was not “desirable to pursue a course of partisan opposition to the Governor, and I did not do so, but rather cooperated with him in securing legislation which appeared to be for the public interest.” The same emphasis on bipartisanship was one of the keys to Reagan’s success. As a former Democrat, his credentials were perhaps better than those of Coolidge. His greatest domestic triumphs, the tax cut and tax reform, were achieved with significant Democratic support. And though he was less successful in getting Democrats to support him on foreign policy, to this day “Reagan Democrats” remain an influential voting bloc in national politics.
Coolidge, in achieving bipartisan support, had to contend with a familiar problem, the difference between the power of ordinary people, “unorganized, formless and inarticulate”, and a “compact and well-drilled minority” that is well-organized but whose programs are “almost always very expensive.” To get his platform enacted, to harness the “indirect power” of the people, Coolidge had to deal with what he called “the political mind”, and he offers a tart but spectacularly perceptive description:
Although I have been associated with [the political mind] for many years, I always found difficulty in understanding it. It is a strange mixture of vanity and timidity, of an obsequious attitude at one time and a delusion of grandeur at another time, of the most selfish preferment combined with the most sacrificing patriotism. The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and spoiled with abuse. With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial. A few rare souls escape these influences and maintain a vision and a judgment that are unimpaired. They are a great comfort to every President and a great service to their country. But they are not sufficient in number so that the public business can be transacted like a private business.
Coolidge’s advice, drawn from this assessment of the political mind, on how to deal with the Congress must have impressed Reagan, and remains utterly shrewd and relevant.
First, Coolidge advised Presidents not to let politics get personal. “Perhaps one of the reasons I have been a target for so little abuse is because I have tried to refrain from abusing other people”, he wrote. Second, Coolidge advised Presidents not to go over the heads of the politicians to the people too often. “[A] President cannot, with success, constantly appeal to the country. After a while he will get no response. The people have their own affairs to look after and can not give much attention to what the Congress is doing.” Reagan, dubbed “the Great Communicator”, was much more articulate than Coolidge, indeed the master of new media for reaching the people. He thus paid less attention to this advice, sometimes to his own detriment, as demonstrated by the failure of his final television address to the nation on the subject of Nicaragua. But President Obama has evidently failed to heed this advice—Time reports that “in his first six months in office, [he] gave three times as many interviews as either of his two immediate predecessors, according to the White House Transition Project, and held more primetime press conferences than George W. Bush did in eight years”—and it may be a harbinger of growing ineffectiveness.2
Third, Coolidge said that if you take a position and stand by it, ultimately it will be adopted. That is a fair description of the position Reagan always took. He was legendary for the tenacity with which he defended his negotiating position, but Coolidge’s language does not do justice to the subtlety with which Reagan pursued his aims, going back to his experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild. If you can get 70 percent of what you want, he would often argue, take it and go back for the rest later.
Fourth, Coolidge advised, pick good people and let them do their jobs. Reagan took less interest in picking people—famously, James Baker, his Chief of Staff, and Donald Regan, his Secretary of the Treasury, arranged between themselves to exchange jobs—but he did let them do their jobs. Still, he had the charisma that attracted and motivated good people, so he ended up being well served. And if he was not, he could be, in Martin Anderson’s words, “the most warmly ruthless man I’ve ever seen.” In an interview with Reeves, Anderson added, “When he decided to get something done, you did not want to be in his way. He didn’t take any pleasure in hurting people, but you were gone if you were in his way.”
The greatest lesson that Reagan may have learned from Coolidge goes directly to the question of Reagan’s alleged passivity in his relationship with both his cabinet and his Administration generally. Coolidge gave this advice:
In the discharge of the duties of the office there is one rule of action more important than all others. It consists in never doing anything that some one else can do for you. Like many other good rules, it is proven by its exceptions. But it indicates a course that should be very strictly followed in order to prevent being so entirely devoted to trifling details that there will be little opportunity to give the necessary consideration to policies of larger importance.
Even more directly related is the following observation:
As he is head of the government, charged with making appointments and clothed with the executive power, the President has a certain responsibility for the conduct of all departments, commissions and independent bureaus. While I was willing to advise with any of these officers and give them any assistance in my power, I always felt they should make their own decisions and rarely volunteered any advice. [Emphasis supplied.]
These two pieces of counsel deal with issues of management, delegation and leadership, particularly where they relate to the presidency, which have been among the most hotly debated of our time. In contrast with Neustadt’s emphasis on the need for the President to be wary of delegating power, Reagan believed no President could deal effectively with more than a limited number of issues. He understood that his main responsibility was to ensure that action was taken on those issues, to provide public leadership and to develop a workable relationship with the Congress.
It may be that Coolidge’s advice in all these areas was sufficiently obvious, or close enough to his own natural way of doing business, that Reagan didn’t need it. But, with the exception of the use he made of television, it is a fair description of how he operated. Whether he read Coolidge twice merely for reinforcement or for actual counsel we will never know. His copy of the Autobiography is not in the Reagan Presidential Library, so we do not know of any comments he may have made in the margins. His copy may still be in Mrs. Reagan’s possession. But he did read it twice.
Still, it would be wrong to lay too much emphasis on what a President should not do. Coolidge believed that a President should husband his time and energy “to give the necessary consideration to policies of larger importance.” He advocated not a hands-off but a hands-on presidency; the hands, however, had to be on the steering wheel. He did not supervise the oil change.
Few Presidents have concentrated their attention more precisely or more effectively on critical matters than Reagan. There were three subjects he deemed critical: a reduction in taxes, the defense build-up, and the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. In dealing with these issues President Reagan displayed insight and prescience that raise his presidency to levels of greatness beyond the scope of Calvin Coolidge. He not only gave detailed attention to all three issues, but he broke with the then-conventional wisdom on them all. By so doing, he achieved the most significant American political transformation of the postwar era. The contrast between the dire condition and deflated sense of self-confidence in the country when Reagan won the White House in November 1980 and America’s renewed self-confidence when he left office in January 1989 is nothing short of breathtaking.
Of course, no single piece of advice—to concentrate on “policies of larger importance”, for example—can guarantee similar results. It takes character and courage to resist the subtle persuasion of friends and allies, the uncertainty inherent in new policies, the anger of the millions who marched in Central Park, and the distrust of those who thought Reagan was not up to the job. But it is surely one of the great ironies of recent history that a President widely regarded by the intelligentsia of his time as an amiable dunce should, in following the advice of another underrated President, renew America’s self-confidence and contribute to the destruction of the most powerful tyranny the world has ever seen.
1Reeves, p. 104.
2See Randy James, “Brief History: Presidents and the Press”, Time, September 28, 2009; and Mortimer Zuckerman, “The Incredible Deflation of Barack Obama”, U.S. News & World Report, January 21, 2010.