Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

Nine stars

While many people surely aspire to be President of the United States (POTUS), the role of Vice-President is sometimes called a position ‘not worth a bucket of warm spit’. John Nance Garner, one of FDR’s vice-presidents famously made that remark, though I paraphrase. However, there have been times when the second on the ticket has ascended to the role of POTUS due to death and it is those men that fuel this book by Jared Cohen. In it, Cohen explores eight of the men who assured the office of President upon the death of their predecessor. Exploring some of the backstory that led to the death of the sitting leader, the fallout, and the ascension of the vice-president, Cohen seeks to determine how effective the new POTUS became. As far back as John Tyler taking the position after the death of William Henry Harrison, the idea of American leadership falling into the lap of another has been a reality. The shock of the Tyler situation, in which he became POTUS just over a month into the term is contrasted with the almost expected elevation of Harry S. Truman after FDR’s fourth electoral victory. As Cohen calls him, Truman was ‘President-in-waiting’ and it was only the constitutional limbo of ensuring FDR made it from election night victor to inaugurated POTUS that served as the drama. Some grabbed the reins of power effectively, like Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), and ran with it before they served a term as POTUS and kept the country together, while others were disasters. Cohen argues extensively that Andrew Johnson’s choice by Lincoln during the second term may have been seen as a uniting effort during the Civil War, but when an assassin’s bullet ended the great president’s life, Johnson’s ascendency turned the country on its ear, which led to impeachment trials. Cohen also sandwiches the ‘blip on the screen’ vice-president—Calvin Coolidge—with the likes of Chester A. Arthur and Millard Fillmore, who had little interest in the top job, but worked to make things work as best they could. The United States has seen eight men ‘fall’ into the role of POTUS, making the choice of a presidential running mate all the more important. More in line with what Garner actually said, one would hope future aspirants to the White House choose folks full of ‘piss and vinegar’ rather than clueless and guided by their own wit, as he discusses in a poignant afterward. Recommended for those who love American political history, as well as the reader who find American presidential politics right up their alley.

I always love a good presidential biography and Cohen offered up sixteen of them in miniature. His discussion of American history and political goings-on is second to none as he pulls eight presidents and their last running mates into the mix, analyses their effectiveness, and contrasts it with the way America ran itself. While the presidential curse ran long—the man elected every twenty years from 1840 to 1960 died in office—there is more to this elongated collection of biographies. The country is surely one heartbeat away from the second-in-command assuming the office and the choice is sometimes not just to bolster the ticket. Those reading will see how Cohen effectively shows that some selections doomed the country for a time—A. Johnson, Arthur, Coolidge, while others proved effective choices to succeed their predecessors—Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ—and made an indelible impact on the country. It is for the reader, with the help of Cohen’s writing, to decipher what they feel. Cohen’s use of extensive sources and effective arguments make a strong case that these many have been accidents, but also could have been averted. Men chosen to serve as vice-presidents should not only bind the party and the country, but have the wherewithal to serve effectively. There are others who never had the opportunity that would surely have been great players in the game, while other vice-presidents one would surely shudder to think running the country—as many do of some who actually have won victory to the White House—for any period of time. Cohen uses strong academic arguments in an easy to digest format to propel American history into the reader’s mind and shows just how interesting things can be. Besides the eight men who ascended to the presidency, Cohen explores some ‘near misses’ and a temporarily use of the 25th Amendment to show how vice-presidents should be ready at any time While surely not a book for everyone, Cohen’s writing makes it easy to draw conclusions, even if they are not always the ones with which the reader would agree. Well-organized and so thoroughly researched that I will have to see what else I can learn from this man and his on-point arguments.

Kudos, Mr Cohen, for a fascinating look. As you mention in your author’s note, this has long been a passion for you. I am happy to join you in being a long-time presidential history (and disaster) fanatic.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: