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Coolidge.

By Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes, a former Wall Street Journal editor and the author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2007), is a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and the director of the Four Percent Growth project at the George W. Bush Center. In Coolidge, Shlaes offers a paean to America's tax-cutting 30th president.

THE TOPIC: Calvin Coolidge, a scion of New England, was famously taciturn, earning the nickname "Silent Cal." (When satirist Dorothy Parker received news of Coolidge's death in 1933, she coolly replied, "How could they tell?") After rising through the ranks of Massachusetts politics (while governor, he broke a policeman's strike in Boston, winning praise from constituents in the throes of the Red Scare), Coolidge took office in 1923 upon the death of Warren G. Harding. He spent much of the Roaring Twenties--a time of unprecedented economic growth in America--laying the foundation for what today is hailed by conservatives as fiscally responsible policy. "Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts," Shlaes writes. "Coolidge made a virtue of inaction."

Harper. 576 pages. $35.00. ISBN: 9780061967559

Minneapolis Star Tribune ****

"The top-hatted Calvin Coolidge who gazes out at readers from the cover of Amity Shlaes' engrossing new biography seems different from the caricature of the dry, parsimonious New Englander who is usually passed over on the historian's way to Herbert Hoover's crash and FDR's New Deal. ... Whether or not Coolidge's example can now be emulated, his biographer has provided a vivid example of what success and stability meant in an era when a president subsumed himself in the cares of office and paid scant attention to his public persona." CARL ROLLYSON

USA Today ****

"In the end, Coolidge stands as a staunch president, but hardly a visionary one. Still, Shlaes delivers a finely muted drama--the tale of an unprepossessing man who overcomes, prevails, exits with honor and establishes something admittedly special: an American archetype." MATT DAMSKER

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ****

"I came away from the book with the belief that if I needed a lawyer whose honesty, integrity and frankness I could count upon, Coolidge would be my pick. ... Coolidge cultivated his reputation as a man of few words, so it seems appropriate that the title of Ms. Shlaes' book is a single word: Coolidge." LEN BARCOUSKY

NY Times Book Review ***

"[Shlaes] has assiduously researched Coolidge's life, drawing both on his private papers (going so far as to photograph his appointment books) and on contemporary newspaper reports. ... She has not written a fiery polemic, but a stylistically assured narrative of Coolidge's life that seeks to nudge the reader imperceptibly into sharing his (and her) views." JACOB HEILBRUNN

Seattle Times ***

"Coolidge was not exciting, to be sure; they called him Silent Cal. But he deserves a more compelling narrative than this." BRUCE RAMSEY

Christian Science Monitor **

"Shlaes has written the first substantial book on Coolidge in a decade, but ideology undermines her narrative. Unless John Maynard Keynes--and my 11th-grade history teacher--were totally wrong, it's hard to believe her book will be relevant after another." JUSTIN MOYER

Miami Herald **

"Shlaes' anti-government/pro-business bias occasionally shows. She portrays unions as violent and irrational but rarely brings up the crimes perpetrated against striking workers by their corporate bosses." ARIEL GONZALEZ

Washington Post **

"For all its energetic prose and vivid detail, Coolidge, at its core, is a reductive, relentlessly didactic exercise. There is nothing wrong with looking to history for lessons, but it is another thing entirely to eschew its complexities, ignore its self-contradictions and render it, instead, as a morality play." JEFF SHESOL

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Heavy on praise for her subject, Amity Shlaes's well-researched and ably crafted biography glosses over the president's economic shortsightedness in the face of the impending Depression, asserting that Coolidge's abstemious example (or "inaction," take your pick) nearly a century ago "may well help Americans now turn a curse to a blessing or, at the very least, find the heart to continue their own persevering." The treatment prompts several critics--the reviews are split, with little ambivalence among them--to question whether Shlaes does due diligence to the history or wrote the book with an agenda in mind, replete with "passages tinged with the stilted sort of eroticism one sees in Ayn Rand novels" (Washington Post). That's her prerogative, certainly, but a rhetorical decision that could negatively influence the book's legacy. "Unfortunately, whether you like it will depend on what you believe about macroeconomics," the Christian Science Monitor concludes.
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Author:Shlaes, Amity
Publication:Bookmarks
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2013
Words:753
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