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Editorial: The Coolidge Revival: Will Liberal Vermont Play a Role?

Perhaps it’s out of sheer perversity, but we find ourselves relishing the prospect of reliably liberal Vermont playing a role in the revival of a throwback version of conservatism.

This occurred to us the other day upon learning that Amity Shlaes had been elected chairwoman of the board of trustees for the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, the organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the contributions of this country’s 30th president. For the longest time, paying proper tribute to Coolidge didn’t require much more than making a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Plymouth Notch, appreciating the austerity of the world into which he was born, perhaps sampling some cheese there and becoming reacquainted with the anecdotes that captured his signature trait — taciturnity. (Our favorite is what writer Dorothy Parker reportedly said upon hearing that Silent Cal had died: “How can they tell?”) The general sense was that while Coolidge wasn’t bad on the level of a Franklin Pierce, neither was he great on the order of an Abraham Lincoln.

Shlaes succeeds Jay Barrett of Fairlee, who resigned in June, the same month that the foundation’s executive director departed (the fifth to do so in the last five years, signaling perhaps some inter-tribal tension within the Coolidge community, if we can use that term). No doubt, Shlaes will be concerned primarily with fundraising and cultivating an appreciation for the Vermont-born president. But when she confesses, “I love Coolidge,” as she recently did to a Rutland Herald reporter, it bespeaks a passion that goes beyond the standard profession of adoration one might expect from someone elected to her position.

In fact, Shlaes is the author of a Coolidge biography published earlier this year that some have interpreted as making the case that the Coolidge presidency provides a contemporary conservative model in its pursuit of a low-profile federal government, low taxes and freedom from debt. That Shlaes, a Bloomberg View columnist whose writing occasionally appears on this page, might write a biography that advances a political agenda is plausible. Her previous book challenged the notion that an activist federal government was key to ending the Depression, and her work as a Wall Street Journal editorial writer and director of the George W. Bush Presidential Center provides her with unimpeachable conservative credentials. Not surprisingly, the publication of her book ignited something of an ideological face-off, with prominent conservatives such as George Will and Paul Ryan hailing the biography itself and the Coolidge legacy, while less conservative reviewers were as unimpressed by her book as by Coolidge’s six-year presidency.

As the favorable reviews her book received in the conservative press made clear, Shlaes is not alone in her admiration for Coolidge. Ronald Reagan was a fan. And several conservative intellectuals have recently called for a revival of Coolidgian values.

Might the “brave little state” that gave the country Silent Cal end up energizing his not-so-silent enthusiasts through the elevation of his admirer-in-chief? Might she use her new office to carry on the crusade? At the very least, her appointment might bring the effort a little more attention.

Vermont liberals need not feel unnerved by such a prospect. Coolidge was born in Vermont, loved Vermont and perhaps embodied values that used to be associated with the state, but he really was a Massachusetts politician. He can be disowned if need be. And to whatever extent a Coolidge revival succeeds, that purer version of conservatism that believes in avoiding both debt and extremism is far preferable to several incarnations that have come along since.