Few biographies are at once an unriddling of chronology, seminal events, and a study of character. Yet all these traits are clearly present in Amity Shlaes’ superb new biography of America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.
That he was not without flaws is certainly true, and Ms. Shlaes’ book discusses them with balance and insight. But Coolidge possessed many counter-intuitive strengths, and her exploration of them lends her book much of its appeal. In so doing, she achieves the difficult feat of showing how his life shaped the times he lived in, particularly the 1920s, and the ways his life and career speak with power to our own historical moment.
Supremely, he did all he could to be a wise and prudent steward of American fiscal policy. His tenure was marked by historically-low unemployment and budget surpluses. He understood the art of delegation, and knew what it was to mine the wisdom of gifted colleagues. He let their strengths become his own. He learned from them, and acted in concert with them. Wrongly caricatured as a loner, Coolidge understood how important it was to husband his time, and his physical well-being. Few people knew that he suffered from a bad heart. And his life was exemplified by a rare form of courage no father should ever have to call upon: a courage summoned by the tragic death of his son. Spare lines of suffering and loss were written after this searing loss—
In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.
When he went the power and the glory of the presidency went with him.
The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do.
I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.
To write a biography as Ms. Shlaes has done is to join a long conversation with history. Sometimes only the passage of years allows us to rightly appreciate a particular kind of leader. Eighty years after Coolidge’s passing, we are perhaps only beginning to see that leaders can lead as much through forbearance—the things they choose not to do—as through the things they choose to do. Both may be numbered among their accomplishments. Both kinds of leadership have something to teach us.
Shlaes’s book recalls David McCullough’s recovery of Harry Truman twenty years ago in his masterful biography. Coolidge is meticulously researched, and artfully written. It stands as a definitive work.
Would that we had more presidents whose formative years unfolded in the life school of America’s farms. There, character can strike deep roots and grow. Shlaes and McCullough both remind us that character is the most telling and important trait a president can have. We are better for knowing presidents Truman and Coolidge better. Both biographies belong on the same shelf.
An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).