No, NOT Barack Obama....
So who is the presidential model we need to restore a human-scale presidency?
Start with what is wrong about The One....
This is something I’ve struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is that I’m the president of the United States, I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.
Add in the self-referential grandiosity of Obama's public persona, on display at its worst in his state of the union addresses. George Will, at his acerbic best, eviscerates the pseudo-sacred custom of annual televised state of the union addresses:
In the 12 months we have to steel ourselves for the next State of the Union spectacle, let us count the ways that this spawn of democratic Caesarism — presidency worship — has become grotesque. It would be the most embarrassing ceremony in the nation’s civic liturgy, were the nation still capable of being embarrassed by its puerile faith in presidential magic.
The Constitution laconically requires only that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Nothing requires “from time to time” to be construed as “every damn year.” Informing and recommending need not involve today’s tawdry ritual of wishful thinking by presidents unhinged from political reality and histrionics by their audiences. And must we be annually reminded that all presidents think that everything they want is “necessary and expedient”?
After reviewing this year's dismal spectacle plus other historical examples good (no speech) versus bad (speech), Will concludes:
State of the Union addresses are now integral to the apotheosis of the presidency. If government is going to be omniprovident, modern presidents are going to be omnipresent, and politics is going to be infantile.
Coolidge. Derided by liberal historians as "Silent Cal" the nation's 30th president is the subject of a new biography by stellar historian Amity Shlaes: Coolidge. Shlaes notes CC's achievements in his 5-1/2 years in office: federal debt fell; taxes cut more than half, to a top rate of 25 percent; budget always in surplus; unemployment 3 to 5 percent; a federal government smaller in 1929 than when Coolidge assumed the mantle in 1923. Innovation flourished: electricity, communications, patent applications. And: no state of the union spectacles.
Author Shlaes elaborates in an NRO interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez. She notes that the 20th century's predominantly progressive historians have consistently (unjustly) ranked Coolidge in the bottom quartile of presidents. In addition to his presidential tenure, Shlaes cites Coolidge's facing down the unions, and his tart warning to legendary labor leader Samuel Gompers (adopted in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, when facing the air traffic controllers union): "[T]here is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere."
In 1910 Coolidge wrote his father, "It is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones." Of workers he said: "I want the people to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry." Asked by a senator, "Who lives in the White House?" as they strolled past the mansion, Coolidge replied: "Nobody. They just come and go." Though eligible to run again Coolidge declined to do so, retiring after 1-1/2 terms.
George Will favorably reviews the book & the Coolidge presidency (book link in Will's article). Will's tart column--perfectly titled "Commander in Brief" for the famously taciturn president--is sprinkled with statistics & anecdotes better read directly than paraphrased by me. But Will adds a delicious gem that author Shlaes did not include:
He met his wife, the vivacious Grace, after hearing her laughter when she saw through a window him shaving while wearing a hat. Shlaes’s biography would be even more engaging had she included this oft-repeated anecdote:When President and Mrs. Coolidge were being given simultaneous but separate tours of a chicken farm, Grace asked her guide whether the rooster copulated more than once a day. “Dozens of times,” she was told. “Tell that to the president,” she said. When told, Coolidge asked, “Same hen every time?” When the guide said, “A different one each time,” the president said: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”Will--who noted that The One gave 699 TelePrompTer speeches his first term--concludes:
Coolidge, says Shlaes, thought his office “really was one of ‘president,’ literally one who presided.” And “the best monument to his kind of presidency was no monument at all.” This absence, however, is a kind of admonitory presence for him who said, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.” The 1933 funeral for this man of brevity lasted 22 minutes.
To which I will add a couple of pearls:
1. Coolidge was once approached by a man who said he had made a bet that he could get Coolidge to say more than two words. Coolidge replied: "You lose."
2. Famously acerbic wit Dorothy Parker, no fan of the Coolidge presidency, when told of Silent Cal's 1933 passing quipped: "How can they tell?"
GOP's Inner Coolidge. No Coolidge clones in sight. But Bill Kristol writes that resistance to Obama's project is essential, to limit the damage The One will inflict in his second term. Apply what we can christen the "Coolidge Rule" by citing Silent Cal's 1910 quote: "It is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones."
Bottom Line. Coolidge was a great president, one who understood the limits of executive power, reserving its full exercise for genuine emergencies, respecting the energy & imagination of his people. Too many avatars of vast federal power--exemplified by Barack Obama, populist rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding--regard us as their subjects.
Letter from the Capitol, LFTC, Conservative Politics