“Coolidge” is Amity Shlaes’s 2013 bestselling biography of the thirtieth president. Shlaes is a former editor at The Wall Street Journal and a former columnist for the Financial Times and Bloomberg magazine. She is currently chair of the board of trustees for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and author of “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.”
Often remembered for his impassive demeanor and cold frugality, Coolidge finds himself in friendly hands with Shales. From the book’s outset she is clearly embarked upon a mission to reinvigorate his legacy and remind a financially stretched nation of his careful fiscal stewardship. And in Shlaes’s view Coolidge is more commendable for what he did not do as president than for what he did.
This 456 page biography is extremely well researched and jam-packed with information. But Shlaes is not as gifted a biographer as investigator. Her narrative exudes an uncomfortably disjointed quality as it bounces from topic to topic, rarely taking the time to draw connections between disparate threads. Important facts and events are often described with the same intensity as trivial ones, and she rarely reviews key points to ensure they have been absorbed by the reader.
Fans of linear chronology will appreciate Shlaes’s steady, careful journey through Coolidge’s life. But it usually feels more like a rigid march through his appointment book – punctuated by revelations regarding Will Rogers, cheese making, or perhaps aviation – than an dexterous exploration of his character. And despite the book’s hefty size, and its penchant for detail, much is left unsaid or under-analyzed.
As a review of the social, economic and political currents of Coolidge’s times this biography is often excellent. Shlaes provides a backdrop to Coolidge’s story that is rich with context and demonstrates her understanding of the era. And yet her biography feels surprisingly sterile, detached and devoid of vibrancy. Neither Coolidge nor the characters surrounding him ever feel like real people.
Readers quickly discover that Shlaes’s politics (or, more precisely, her economics) are frequently on display. Fans of dynamic budget scoring will applaud her cogent arguments in favor of Coolidge’s tax policies. Unfortunately, the axiom that lower tax rates lead to higher revenues is asserted once too often causing this to feel like a policy paper at times. But in nearly every respect Shlaes proves the perfect advocate for Coolidge and his cautious, conservative approach to government.
Amity Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge is at once disappointing and meritorious. It punctures tired, shallow Coolidge caricatures and yet fails to offer a thorough or engaging study of his character. It is replete with context and interesting tidbits and yet lacks many of the qualities of a superbly-written biography. In the end, “Coolidge” proves a useful introduction to its subject and a reasoned defense of his policies but falls well short of its full potential.
Overall rating: 3½ stars