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WHICH PRESIDENT WILL HISTORY COMPARE HIM MOST CLOSELY TO?
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
During Coolidge’s administration, the peacetime army shriveled away, far more than under Clinton’s. He did nothing to police the runaway stock market or to redress the grievances of organized labor, largely demolished by big business soon after World War I. His Justice Department took no real action against the bold new crime syndicates that flourished under Prohibition. Again and again, Coolidge made clear his view that government had little place in most fields of human endeavor. Facing a wrenching nationwide farm depression that had persisted since the end of World War I, he only asked rhetorically, “When a man can’t make any money in a business, what does he do?”
WHAT DO CLINTON AND COOLIDGE HAVE IN COMMON? THE ANSWER LIES MOSTLY IN THE FIT BETWEEN THE MEN AND THEIR TIMES.
His approach to foreign relations was nearly as callous, letting his Secretary of State conclude a meaningless pact that “outlawed” war while doing little to help Europe through its postwar shambles or to confront Japan’s expansionist impulses in the Far East.
Yet Coolidge maintained a real idealism about the modern industrial world. He meant it when he told the Society of American Newspaper Editors, “The chief business of the American people is business,” and when he proclaimed, “The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. And the man who works there worships there.” There is in such statements a sort of rapture that dovetails with nothing so much as Bill Clinton’s eager reveries about building his “bridge to the twenty-first century.” And much as Clinton’s opponents may scoff, he seems to have meant it, too, when he announced, “The era of big government is over.”
It is doubtful that Calvin Coolidge would consider our government to be small. But it is Clinton, after all, who has run a sort of modern equivalent of a limited federal government—balancing the budget, ending the welfare state, and letting dreams of national health care expire—though entitlements alone preclude shrinkage to anything like the scale of things in Coolidge’s day.
As for foreign policy, Clinton has hardly been as cynically isolationist as Coolidge was. Indeed, his concerted pursuit of peace in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere has won support all over the globe. Still, he can be seen as at times having subordinated principles to narrower trade objectives, as in his abandoning his campaign promises to make civil liberties and the environment part of major trade agreements.
And it is Clinton who has reversed a trend of some 70 years by overseeing a transfer of power from the nation’s political capital, Washington, to its financial capital, New York. Wall Street has not held such a position of ascendancy in our country since, well, Calvin Coolidge. Perhaps the seismic proportions of this shift alone will induce historians to bump old Bill up a notch or two on some future classroom Web site. Or maybe not. Within months of Coolidge’s retirement from public life, after all, the Depression had altered forever the future that he thought business alone would take care of.
What had seemed like prudent, limited government just a couple of years earlier looked like simply passing the buck. In the years ahead, America would sorely want for a social safety net and effective law enforcement, a better balance of power between labor and management, and a reasonable military deterrent.
It may be that the bridge to the twentyfirst century will also require some rapid and bewildering adjustments, that building a global economy will take more than a few free-trade agreements, that we will face wars in which significant casualties are a real possibility, and that preserving human rights and liberties will require a concerted effort by the people, deciding their destiny through their elected representatives, not just the marketplace or the Internet. Of course, if Clinton too finds that the new era is not what he anticipated, don’t expect him to admit it. These days the first thing former Presidents do is sit down in their presidential libraries, write their memoirs, and make their own cases. But what history suggests Bill Clinton will do with his life after the Oval Office is a subject we’ll take up next time.