7.03.2017

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

I found this book a few years ago, in the bargain section at Barnes & Noble, where it was marked down to a startling $7.99 if my memory serves me correctly.  In school, I had just finished studying the period of time between WWI and the Great Depression, and had been fascinated by the brief introduction to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, his under-appreciated administration sandwiched between those of Warren Harding and the equally infamous Herbert Hoover.  When I saw a cheap copy of a commanding-looking biography of his life, I picked it up.  Since then, it's sat with my other unread books until I used a credit on the Audible version and listened to it while I mowed this summer.  Today, I want to talk about this stunning biography of a little-known and little-lauded president who deserves more recognition and respect, not least because so many of his qualities reveal the poverty of today's politicians and government leaders (ahem).

This book was fantastic.  I'm not a fan of adjectives, so take that as high praise.  The writing is engaging and held my attention.  This is the sort of nonfiction writing that makes me want to read more of it – accessible and clear yet scholarly and impeccably researched.  Shlaes does an excellent job of treating with fairness every aspect of Coolidge, every seemingly incongruous quirk and habit.  She traces his character growth from his days at Amherst College to his time as president to shed light on his motivations and the solid principles upon which he operated.  She notices the stewardship passed down to him by his father, and how this particular quality enabled him to slash spending and do away with the budget deficit.  His unwavering perseverance even through tragedy and setback meant that his challenges did not stop him, whether that was his struggle with math during his school years, or the stubborn opposition he garnered from Congress during his presidency.  In a way that made him feel utterly human, Shlaes did not shy away from exposing and tracing Coolidge's missteps and flaws, but she ultimately reveals a man with a praiseworthy character that kept him from hypocrisy and selfishness and the petty catering and pandering that often marks politicians.  Coolidge stuck to his guns, even when it would have benefited him politically and personally to give in to pressure from his own party.  While this trademark didn't always make him popular at the time, he was respected for being trustworthy and honest.

Perhaps the greatest thing I took away from this book, apart from the story of a brilliant man, is the example of someone who persevered in doing right regardless of the consequences.  I wish Calvin Coolidge was better known for so many reasons: his brilliance and diligence in managing the federal budget with scrupulous attention, his refusal to back down on his principles or goals, his silence and reticence to speak he is most well known for (and wow, would that be a breath of fresh air today!), and the faithfulness to his family and his marriage.  I was impressed by this biography and Shlaes' execution because this book did what I think all good biographies do – it revealed Coolidge in his complexity and begged that I respect him and appreciate him for who he is.  I totally fell in love with Coolidge and the end of this book made me cry.  Am I the biggest nerd or what?

Quick note on the audiobook: it was excellent and I highly recommend this mode of reading/absorbing.  The version I listened to is narrated by Terence Aselford.  Find it here.

Reading this book made me want to pick up these titles as well:
Herbert Hoover: A Life by Glen Jeansonne

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