“The Preparation of Calvin Coolidge” by Robert A. Woods was one of the first biographies of the 30th president. It was published in 1924, shortly after Coolidge became president following the death of Warren Harding. Woods graduated from Amherst College and Andover Theological Seminary; he was a social reformer, a friend of Coolidge and an author. He died in 1925 at the age of 59.
Written during the early part of Coolidge’s tenure as president, this book is far less a biography than it is a detailed character study. And to the extent it is considered a biography at all it may be best characterized as a campaign biography. Although rarely obtuse in its persistent praise for Coolidge, it is diligent in its effort to convince voters to re-elect Coolidge to his own full presidential term in 1924.
The thesis of Woods’s book is immediately clear: that Coolidge was more prepared for the presidency than any previous occupant of the office. This sweeping statement is never entirely convincing (even within the context of its times) but it needs not be fully accepted it in order to appreciate the careful review which Woods provides of Coolidge’s pre-presidency.
Embracing the book’s organizational structure, however, is more difficult. Woods reviews the first four decades of his subject’s life in what seems a random order, beginning with Coolidge’s service in the Massachusetts House. Skipping over Coolidge’s years as a mayor, Woods then focuses on Coolidge’s tenure as a State Senator before bouncing between his legal studies, his mayoralty and his childhood. Fortunately, the last twenty years of Coolidge’s life are easier to follow.
Published soon after Coolidge’s elevation to the presidency, this is no cradle-to-grave biography. Not only is Woods unable to cover the majority of the Coolidge presidency (or any of his nearly four-year retirement), but the most infamous legacy of his predecessor – the Teapot Dome Scandal – had not yet ripened while the ink in this book was beginning to dry. As a result there is relatively little discussion of the Harding Administration’s blemishes which lingered through much of the Coolidge Administration.
Nonetheless, this 280-page book proves instructive, insightful and surprisingly interesting. And despite its advanced age and dated writing style it is easy to read and absorb. Lacking tedious detail and unnecessary context, the focus is squarely on Coolidge…and most often on his public career. Woods fleshes out Coolidge’s family and friends in just enough detail to add color to his otherwise sallow portrait.
Overall, Robert Woods’s biography is surprisingly compelling as a document that is unapologetic in its advocacy for Coolidge. Judged as a comprehensive and rigorously objective presidential study, this biography is clearly deficient. But in its primary mission – reviewing the various offices Coolidge held and the qualities of his character which prepared him for the presidency – it is successful.
Overall rating: 3 stars