23 February 2013

Review: Coolidge

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite economic history books is The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. A take on the Great Depression that you rarely see from mainstream writers, it did a great job cutting to the chase regarding Depression-era economics. When I saw that Shlaes was doing a biography on Calvin Coolidge, all the better!

First, this is very much a political biography. While there's plenty about his family and his life before politics, it's all framed within the context of his politics and political career. With that in mind, it's a biography that really could only happen in today's political and economic climate, with the record amounts of government debt and with Keynes all the rage. Coolidge, with his tax and budget cutting ways, is an easier sell to an audience as a result.

The book itself is solid. It's highly detailed, with copious notes, and is informative without being dry. For a 450+ page book, the narrative is also very tight, and, at least when it comes to the political history, I didn't feel like I was missing a lot. The downside is that, without a strong focus also at the non-political Coolidge, Coolidge does come across as a little more eccentric than he may have been. For all I know, he may have been a strange man on a whole, but strange people generally don't get elected to the presidency.

If there is a downside, it's that the book is clearly looking to build the case for Coolidge based on his actions. We get very little negative information about Coolidge that might help round out his presidency, and it makes things somewhat lacking as a result in that area. It's not a fatal flaw, but given the overall lack of knowledge people may have of Coolidge, this may not be the fairest introduction for many. On the other hand, this is not an introductory tome, so there's that to consider.

Overall, however, a great book with a lot going for it, and a strong take on a president who, at best, is largely forgotten and at worst unfairly maligned for issues he didn't cause. Worth reading for anyone interested in the political aspects of the 1920s and the aftermath of them.

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