“Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President” is Donald McCoy’s 1967 biography of Coolidge. McCoy was a professor of history at the University of Kansas for almost four decades, an author and a leading authority on mid-20th century US history. In addition to his biography of Coolidge, he was the author of “The Presidency of Harry S. Truman.” McCoy died in 1996 at the age of 68.
If the measure of a biography is directly related to its ability to please neither fans nor detractors of its subject, McCoy’s biography of Coolidge stacks up well. Avoiding both effusive praise and unfair criticism, McCoy’s biography steers a steady middle course between the two extremes of thought on Coolidge. After weighing the evidence, however, McCoy ultimately finds him “a man of his time” but “not for his time.”
In 422 pages, McCoy carefully and comprehensively dissects the life of Calvin Coolidge with a straightforward, unpretentious and occasionally keen writing style. Reportedly the result of seven years of research, this biography is well organized, systematic and often insightful. And unlike some biographies, this work is firmly focused on the man and not primarily on his times.
“The Quiet President” receives higher marks for insight and analysis than for its entertainment value. Although it is consistently readable, it grows weighty during Coolidge’s presidency. It becomes particularly dense when reviewing the nuances of Coolidge’s less important domestic initiatives and while discussing foreign affairs.
Of the half-dozen Coolidge biographies I’ve read so far, McCoy’s probably best captures Calvin’s early life in Vermont. “The Quiet President” sets the stage carefully, explaining his youth in a way that foreshadows the man Coolidge was to become while also providing the clearest explanation I’ve seen of his steady, if unlikely, rise in politics.
Almost in the spirit of a Joseph Ellis character study, McCoy paints a robust and multi-dimensional portrait of Coolidge’s personality and mindset. Some of the additional texture does not accrue to Coolidge’s benefit (his efforts to micromanage his wife’s daily life and his disinclination to taking steps which might have mitigated the looming Great Depression come to mind) but the incremental insight helps the reader holistically understand the man.
Somewhat to my surprise, the author is far less generous with praise regarding Coolidge’s role in the Boston Police Strike than I expected and he seems to underemphasize Coolidge’s philosophical aversion to governmental (if not personal) indebtedness. But I found McCoy’s discussion and analysis of the nomination process for both political parties in 1924 particularly fascinating.
Readers seeking a deep understanding of Coolidge’s presidency will be pleased; his years in the White House account for more than half the book. But McCoy reserves the best for last. The final chapter is an excellent and somewhat provocative review of Coolidge’s suitability for – and performance as – president. His attributes and foibles are well articulated and the author leaves the impression of Coolidge as a man in possession of many unique and desirable qualities of a President but whose shortcomings held him back.
Overall, Donald McCoy’s “Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President” is a comprehensive, detailed and well-written biography. While it will not satisfy Coolidge’s most ardent fans, neither will it appeal to his most passionate critics. Steering a somewhat unique middle path, McCoy’s biography provides a balanced, thorough and interesting introduction to Calvin Coolidge.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars