Bestselling ‘Coolidge’ author Amity Shlaes comes home to Brooklyn Heights for book talk
Amity Shlaes, the best-selling author and sage – though without the grey beard – of the world where politics, policy and economics collide, will speak in person on May 22 to her friends and neighbors in Brooklyn Heights.
She’s been on the national book-tour circuit plugging her latest bestseller, “Coolidge,” telling the story of a president she greatly admires because, put simply, “He cut the budget.”
Back home in the Heights, where “liberals” strut but conservatives quietly flourish, she will share the wealth of her ideas, passion and copious research about a period of American history that helped her produce two of her three bestsellers in recent years.
“Coolidge” – which spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list after its February publication – is a riveting read about America’s 30th President, who Shlaes says has been wrongly blamed for precipitating the Great Depression.
“Coolidge is like Brooklyn. People who don’t know him under-rate him – and he liked it that way,” the Yale grad said in a recent sit-down with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“He under-promised and over-delivered habitually,” she said.
The famously taciturn Republican – who performed the rare feat of cutting both the federal budget and taxes in the face of political pressure from the Progressive Party and cash-strapped farmers and military veterans – was a fan of New York City.
“He made a speech about New York and why it was important the U.S. had two capitals, Washington and New York, and not just one – so that commerce could be in one place and government could be somewhere else. And New York was a check on Washington,” she said.
“And I’m sure he would have said Brooklyn was a check on New York.”
Her talk at the Heights Casino about her biography of the 1920s president will be her second for its Speakers’ Series. She spoke previously about her 2007 book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” which sold 300,000 copies.
Her third bestseller, “The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It,” was published in 1999.
“What we like about the Heights community is they’re so loyal,” said Shlaes, who worked for 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as reporter, copy editor, Op Ed editor and editorial board member. “We appreciate their loyalty.”
She moved to the neighborhood with her family in 1991 from a Journal posting in Brussels, in part because numerous colleagues called the neighborhood home.
Among them was the late Robert Bartley, who presided over the Journal’s editorial page for three decades and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Shlaes – who co-authored a piece about tax philosophy with Bartley in a Manhattan Institute retrospective, “Turning Intellect into Influence” – thinks Coolidge bore an uncanny resemblance to him.
“He was the pre-incarnation of Mr. Bartley,” she said.
Bartley had sandy hair like the 30th president, and “a farmerish squint and a cackle,” she said. “Coolidge also cackled, I am told,” she added.
Warren Phillips, who was the publisher of the Journal and CEO of parent company Dow Jones, also lived in the Heights.
She and husband Seth Lipsky, who’s the founder and editor of the revived New York Sun and the English edition of the Forward, wouldn’t dream of living elsewhere now.
“The pedestrian aspect is one of the great attractions, the carlessness of it and the serendipity of having no car and running into people,” she said, “instead of jousting with them or competing with them in an automobile for a parking space.”
The self-described “dog person” takes neighborhood walks with her two yellow Labs, whose names reflect her fascination with Depression-era politics. Frannie is named for FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins; Rex is short for Rexford Tugwell, FDR’s brainy economist, whom Shlaes called “the Rahm Emanuel of the New Deal – he says the truth no one else dares say.”
A “Coolidge revival” is afoot with Shlaes leading the way – and detractors are suggesting “Silent Cal,” the Vermont farmer’s son, is unworthy of the surge of enthusiasm.
He had his faults – he supported tariffs and was “kind of naïve on Europe” – but brought America solid prosperity, Shlaes argued.
“There was 4% growth when he was president and unemployment below 5%. Wages rose in real terms, patents proliferated and people got indoor plumbing,” she said.
“It was fabulous for the middle class. They got the Model T and the Model A. Saturday became a concept in the ’20s; it was a work day before that. And we got lower taxes – Coolidge cut taxes lower than Reagan but he always balanced the budget.
“So this is hard to argue against,” she said.
“When someone has a weak argument, the giveaway is that they go ‘ad hominem,’” she added. “They start talking about what you look like or how you smell when they don’t have a substantive argument. And that’s often what happens with Coolidge detractors.”
The syndicated columnist was picked last year by investment guru James Glassman, who runs the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, to be director of an initiative called The 4% Growth Project. Her duties include running a debate program about economic issues for high-school students.
She’s also busy completing a graphic novel version of “Forgotten Man” with illustrator Paul Rivoche for 2014 publication, writing a new book whose subject matter she’s not ready to reveal yet and teaching economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business MBA program.
Elected officials today don’t feel the urgency to cut the federal budget like Coolidge did.
Because interest rates are low, “we don’t think we have any crisis,” Shlaes said.
“If interest rates go up like they did in the ’70s, then politicians from both parties will begin to talk,” she predicted.
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