Cohen (One Hundred Days of Silence) explores the power transitions of eight U.S. vice presidents who took over the presidency upon the deaths of their predecessors in this entertaining but clunky history. Positing that “the matter of succession has been trivialized by voters, candidates, and lawmakers,” Cohen presents brief, confidently told narratives of each transition (Teddy Roosevelt’s reelection, for instance, “represented a glorious triumph for a man who believed he was destined to be president”). After a final chapter listing various near deaths of other presidents, Cohen concludes that the extant process for selecting vice-presidential candidates and integrating them into an administration’s day-to-day business needs improvement, perhaps by requiring v-p candidates to have previously run for president or to have been selected not by campaign teams but party committees. Anecdotes (in 1844, a ship hosting a party of dignitaries, including President Tyler, suffered an explosion when demonstrating its gunpower, killing and maiming many guests) and overdoses of contextual details too often take precedence over the ostensible analytical focus. That said, the pacing is brisk, the writing is clear and engaging, and Cohen’s characterizations of the presidents are mostly vivid. But the conclusions he draws feel slight. This colorful, occasionally amusing, but somewhat shaggy book may strike readers of history as lacking in urgency. (Apr.)
An examination of the problems of presidential succession in American history, which in numerous cases has been anything but orderly.
William Henry Harrison lasted only a month as president before succumbing to pneumonia in 1841, thrusting his vice president, John Tyler, into office. Therewith a chain of events was set in motion that would splinter the Whigs and turn a powerful potential ally, Henry Clay, into a foe: "While Clay sought reconciliation from Harrison," writes Cohen (Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East, 2007, etc.), "he was prepared to wage war with Tyler." It wouldn't be the first time the elevation of a vice president to chief office would rupture old relations, as the author documents. A more modern case was the arrival of Lyndon Johnson to the Oval Office after John F. Kennedy's assassination. The Texan had been building the power he lost when leaving his post as Senate majority leader, for as second-in-command, he "lacked any real constituency inside the administration." Other vice presidents brought into office following the demise or departure of the president were less effective, and certainly less showy: Calvin Coolidge earned the moniker "Silent Cal," but he effectively calmed the turbulent scene surrounding the administration of his predecessor, Warren G. Harding (around whose death, Cohen hints, a cozy conspiracy theory might be built). The book is light on theory and long on anecdote, but it makes for pleasant reading for politics junkies, especially those keen on reading the political winds. Though his book is timely, the author insists that it is incorrect "to look at the timing of this book and assume it was inspired by all the impeachment talk surrounding Donald Trump."
Easily digestible political history and, Cohen's protestations aside, interesting reading for those contemplating the prospect of a President Mike Pence—or President Nancy Pelosi.
What a delightful book and brilliant concept! Jared Cohen treats us to some of the most colorful and momentous episodes in our history when we unexpectedly got a new president. He reveals the historic importance of some lesser-known leaders, such as John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, and highlights the greatness of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Through their fascinating tales we learn why America is such a resilient nation and our Constitution a living document—lessons very powerful for today.”—Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci
“Fascinating, compelling and often alarming. With astonishing story after story, Jared Cohen chronicles the whole pageant of the unsteady, the unready and the unexpectedly capable. Nearly ten percent of our presidents succeeded because of the deaths of those who chose them mostly out of political expediency to be forgotten number twos. Will we luck out in the future with a surprising Harry Truman or with a wrecker like Andrew Johnson? In God we trust. But read Jared Cohen.” —Sidney Blumenthal, author of A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angels
“Thanks to Jared Cohen. The stories of eight accidental presidents are now all in one grand place. Cohen deserves a medal for performing this public service.” —Patricia O’Toole, author of The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made
“History is the most contingent of enterprises, and little has proven more contingent than the nature of the American presidency. In this eloquent and often surprising book, Jared Cohen explores how fate has shaped the officeand all of us. In an age marked by widespread concerns about the character of the person who reaches the pinnacle (by whatever means), Cohen's study is illuminating and resonant.”"—Jon Meacham, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
"This is a fascinating prism through which to look at American history ... It is a well written fast-paced book that is filled with interesting facts and insights. Anyone who is interested in American history will delight in it." —Fareed Zakaria, CNN
"A deep dive into the terms of eight former presidents is chock-full of political hijinks—and déjà vu ... chapters flick at familiar themes: trust busting, scandal wrangling, and brawls that read like highbrow TMZ ... The book is also a reminder that, when it came to succession, America’s founders basically winged it." —Vanity Fair
“One of the many insights to be found in Accidental Presidents is that history unfolds in death as well as in life.”—The Wall Street Journal
"Pleasant reading for politics junkies, especially those keen on reading the political winds."—Kirkus Reviews
“Illuminating...[a] genuinely interesting history on a topic that has never been addressed in this depth.”—Booklist
Colorful...clear and engaging...confidently told.”—Publishers Weekly
“Accidental Presidents is a compelling and comprehensive book of history that shines a light on unexplored corners of our history ... In his typically engaging and gripping style, Jared Cohen tells us why it is not easy to amend the Constitution and why it should be amended. He explores the complexities of the American Constitution and politics as a gifted story-teller ... It will resonate for a long time to come among the scholars and students of American history."—Washington Review of Books
“While much is known about the two successful accidentals, Roosevelt and Truman, and the partially-successful Lyndon, the latter Johnson, much of the book’s treasure lies in earlier, lesser known accidentals.”—New York Journal of Books
"Every single sentence in this books counts."—Fox News
Cohen (founder & CEO, Jigsaw at Google's Alphabet, Inc.; One Hundred Days of Silence) offers a fluidly written work on eight U.S. vice presidents who unexpectedly became chief executives. Assassinations of their predecessors installed Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson in the White House, while fatal presidential illnesses ushered in John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry Truman. What the book does well is describe characteristics and criteria that should influence the selection. Among these are previous experiences as vetted presidential candidates or elected executives rather than their potential to carry states electorally. The book is less valuable as a primary source. Misstatements include referring to 24-year-old Julia Tyler as the youngest First Lady, neglecting Frances Cleveland holding that title at age 21, and citing Henry Morgenthau Jr. as the first Jewish cabinet member instead of Oscar Straus. Cohen also engages in counterfactuals, especially regarding unsuccessful assassination plots. Though he includes the attempt in Palm Beach, FL, against John F. Kennedy in December 1960, he leaves out a threat against Richard Nixon in February 1974. VERDICT This provocative and timely introductory book for concerned readers during another presidential election cycle might spark additional historical sleuthing.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC