“It costs a great deal to be president,” President Calvin Coolidge remarked when he reflected on the March 1926 death of his elderly father. In writing those words Coolidge spoke for all his predecessors, as well as presidents who came after him. Every president has dealt with tragedies and personal challenges during their tenure in the White House. Now an impressive assemblage of presidential historians have joined together to examine those challenges in the recently released book When Life Strikes the President: Scandal, Death, and Illness in the White House.
Coolidge Foundation chairman Amity Shlaes contributed a chapter on the death of Calvin Coolidge, Jr., and the impact that tragedy had on President Coolidge. Calvin, Jr. was a bright young man with a promising future ahead of him. Yet fate took him at the age of sixteen, after a toe blister went septic, subjecting Calvin, Jr. to blood poisoning, an ailment which today could be treated by antibiotics, but had no known treatment or cure in 1924.
Many historians argue that Calvin, Jr.’s death enervated the Coolidge presidency. Amity is not of their number. Instead, she views the death of Calvin, Jr. as a significant blow, of course, but a blow from which President Coolidge recovered. Not only did he recover, but he went on to achieve major accomplishments for the United States, including finally triumphing in his great tax crusade in 1926 and signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact to end war in 1928.
The book also explores the tragedies experienced by other presidents. It is amazing just how many profound tragedies there have been when one reflects upon the lives of the 44 commanders-in-chief. When Life Strikes the President provides a comprehensive and insightful overview of many of these seminal events, adding valuable new scholarship to the historiography of the American presidency.