Audiobook Review: Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America

The audiobook edition.

I don’t normally do audiobooks. The only occasion where that comes up is if I’m doing a long drive, and even then, it’s difficult for me to “get into them,” as it were. I never do fiction books on audio, either. However, I had the occasion to listen to Jared Cohen’s book, Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, while doing a road trip, and I was hooked. I’ve always been into history, but particularly presidential history. After all, it is rightly considered the most powerful job in the world, and as such, a lot of interesting historical events have occurred (or not occurred) based on the decisions of that one person, which is incredible to consider.

Even more incredible to consider is Cohen’s thesis here: The men who are only a heartbeat away from that position — the vice presidents — and who never gave much thought to becoming president, become the fulcrum on which history turned, for better or for worse.

Those eight “accidental” presidents came into office because of a death in office either due to illness or assassination.

The first of these was President John Tyler, who succeeded William Henry Harrison in the 1840s, whose boneheaded self died 30 days into his term after catching a cold during his inauguration speech, which is the longest such speech in history.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of this section from Cohen is bringing to life the USS Princeton tragedy, something I’d never heard of, and which nearly killed John Tyler. It did, however, kill his secretaries of state, the navy, and injures others, including a United States senator. Like with much of what happens in the 1800s, it’s near impossible to imagine something like the USS Princeton tragedy happening today.

In general, this period of time is fascinating for a few reasons. First, that protecting the president was seen as anti-American. That is, the president having protection would make him more akin to royalty and like a monarch in Europe. The American people ought to have access to their president, the thinking went. Thus, quite literally anyone could walk into the White House at the time. It also wasn’t seen as likely that the American people would want to kill their president since they lived in a democracy. Secondly, presidents were dying of illness directly related to poor sanitation in Washington D.C., and/or poor medical practices, like blood-letting (literally what it sounds like; maybe if we take blood from them, they’ll be okay). Third, that we, as regular citizens today, are “better off” in many ways than the presidents of the 19th century. That is, we most certainly have access to better medicine and practices, but also, something that shows up in Cohen’s book throughout these early periods: travel and communication were laborious for presidents and their vice presidents. It’s extraordinary to think about the president being killed and it taking days for the vice president to learn of it, and then travel to Washington D.C. So little was thought of the vice presidency position that in those early periods, the vice president likely wasn’t even in D.C.

That history turned on such flimsy ground as poor sanitation and poor medical practices is fascinating to think about. How much different would the country be had John Wilkes Booth (whose father also threatened a president!) not shot Abraham Lincoln? The Reconstruction period surely would have been different. And you can do this for all the accidental presidents.

There’s Millard Fillmore, who succeed President Zachary Taylor, and then Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after the assassination. Cohen spends a considerable and admirable amount of time showing that Lincoln actually wasn’t stupid or misguided to pick Johnson as his vice president. Johnson through the Civil War was a courageous fighter for the Union, but it turned out that the first principle was to preserving the Union, not civil rights, hence it all fall apart once the Civil War was over.

Chester Arthur succeeding James Garfield was another fascinating one. Garfield seemed like he was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest presidents, or at least had that capacity since it was only four months into his presidency, had he not been assassinated because it was that easy to get that close to a president at the time. He seemed like a principled person for civil rights. However, what’s fascinating here is the politics of the spoils system and how Arthur was conspiring against his own ticket, the president. And how once he was shot, people thought Arthur was complicit! More than that, it took Garfield 90 days to die. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, where we are just wondering if the president will live or die.

Just think, in a 40-year time span between 1840-1880, two presidents died while in office due to illness, and two more were assassinated. Meanwhile, there was also that whole Civil War business, which claimed more than 600,000 lives and the echoes of which we’re still dealing with today. That’s a lot in one’s lifetime!

Next was Theodore Roosevelt after another assassination. Cohen makes an interesting case that the progressive movement might have kickstarted sooner under Roosevelt (rather than later under Woodrow Wilson) had he been able to carry out his agenda. Roosevelt himself survived an assassination attempt, and with a bullet lodged in him, continued his campaign speech.

Calvin Coolidge was next in the 1920s for the onset of the Roaring Twenties. I thought Cohen was a bit hard on Coolidge. He made it seem like Coolidge just slept all the time and did nothing. Depending on your politics, that’s great! I also would question Cohen’s matter-of-fact explanation for the Great Depression and FDR coming in to “fix it.” I highly disagree, but I digress.

Cohen is rather soft on FDR. Whereas with every other president and accidental president, he went detailed on the good and the bad, I feel like the “bad” of FDR was largely ignored, including Japanese internment, breaking Washington’s two-term norm, and not delving into any of his philandering.

After FDR dies in office shortly after assuming his fourth term, we get Harry Truman, who I found Cohen’s treatment of to be fascinating. Truman didn’t much like FDR, and the party bosses of the Democratic Party had to work hard to get Truman on the ticket, presuming FDR would die in office. Truman then had to inherit the end of WWII and creating the post-WWII world order, and navigating the Cold War with the Soviets. That’s another heartbeat-away-but-not-remotely-prepared for it things. Now, Cohen thinks Truman stepped up and was able to fill FDR’s shoes, as it were.

The area I vehemently disagree with Cohen on is his repeating, somehow in the year 2020, the propaganda around the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He makes it seem like a binary choice, invasion or the bombs. He even mentions that former president Herbert Hoover advised allowing conditional surrender for the Japanese to avoid invasion or the bombs, and Cohen dismisses that! I didn’t realize Hoover had done that, but Hoover was right! Cohen merely calls it “unsolicited advice” and moves on. That was a difficult chapter to get through.

Then, of course, there’s Lyndon Johnson who comes in after Kennedy’s assassination. Again, I think Cohen, who worked for Hillary Clinton, so this isn’t exactly surprising, is a little too war-mongering about justifying Johnson’s choices around the Vietnam War. Nevertheless.

Overall, Cohen’s thesis that we need to give more due consideration to the vice presidency — after all, it took four presidents being assassinated and a lot of “close calls” for Congress to pass the 25th Amendment clarifying the line of succession, and three of those assassinations and “close calls” to better fund and professional the Secret Service — in terms of who is selected (he suggests a few reforms for that process so that there is more consideration than campaign and electoral ones) and how to deal with what should happen if a president is incapacitated. Even in the modern era, when there have been close calls, like someone tossing a grenade that fortunately didn’t go off at George W. Bush, it largely went unnoticed or remarked upon.

Presidents and their health has been a closely guarded non-secret in American history. Woodrow Wilson was, for all intents and purposes, incapacitated and ought to have resigned late in his second term due to a series of strokes. FDR never should have run for a fourth term, and of course, the fact of his polio was well-guarded for a while, anyhow. Eisenhower had a series of heart attacks. Even when Reagan faced an assassination attempt, the process, despite the advent of the 25th Amendment, wasn’t all that clear or official.

The United States has been lucky in that, as Cohen points out, we’ve gone the longest time in our history since a president died while in office, from the assassination of JFK to the present, or nearly 60 years. That beats the stretch from George Washington to Harrison. But it’s only a matter of time until it happens again, and what if there had been a President Palin? Or a President Biden sooner than he assumed the office? Does President Trump still happen? Or a President Harris? How much different would history unfold?

Cohen asks us to consider it, and it’s well-worth doing so. I’m surprised he didn’t delve into the thornier issues around the 25th Amendment that came up a lot during President Trump’s tenure. That is, can the 25th Amendment be invoked, or ought it be invoked, against a madman? Someone manifestly unfit for the office? In a just and sane world, perhaps so.

As an aside, Cohen mentions how he grew into loving presidential history, and that he owns locks of presidents’ hairs. What? Why is that a thing? I don’t understand. Owning their letters or even Abraham Lincoln’s top hat is one thing, but their hair?! Gross. Apparently saving a lock of a loved one’s hair was common practice in the 1800s, which is why those locks of hair exist, but yikes. Presidential historians and serial killers agree on at least one thing.

Also, I can’t review an audiobook without giving a shoutout to Arthur Morey, who read Cohen’s book. Whether it’s a an audiobook or a podcast, a huge component of my enjoyment revolves around whether I like the person’s voice. I like Morey’s. He has that old school, velvety voice that seems apropos for a sweep through history. My only quibble is that he pronounces his “h’s” quite distinctly.

If you’re into presidential history (and maybe not owning-locks-of-hair interested), I highly recommend this book, whether in audio form or traditional. For one, it’s just an interesting, sweeping narrative of American history from 1840 to 1975. I love the politics, the historical events, and how much history turns on dumb luck. Secondly, again, Cohen’s thesis is sound, and the vice presidency is still something we don’t give much real consideration to in 2021.

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