‘Accidental Presidents’ is determinedly good


The position had already been filled.
Some might say that there’s no sense going after a job that wasn’t available, but you applied anyhow. True, you might instead be offered a job you never wanted but that’s good, you’ll take it because, in the new book “Accidental Presidents” by Jared Cohen, you never know when opportunity might show up.
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, plenty of consideration was put into it, but they “didn’t think of everything.” For example, they never gave any thought to what could occur should something bad happen to any U.S. President. Apparently, the notion never came up that we’d need smooth successions to calm the nation in times of crisis, and to ensure transition of power.
The first time disaster happened, the nation was nearing its 65th year.
William Henry Harrison, the Whig’s choice in 1840, was so strongly liked that his veep, John Tyler, was almost an afterthought so, following the inauguration, Tyler simply went home to Virginia to wait out his tenure. Thirty days after Harrison moved into the White House, though, he was dead and someone had to go fetch the new 10th President of the United States.
At the end of the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor was such a beloved man in America that “Taylormania” was everywhere, while the choice for vice president, Millard Fillmore, was “mediocre,” says Cohen. Fillmore was a bookworm, quite the contrast to “Old Rough and Ready,” but when Taylor died from a mysterious stomach bug, Fillmore had to fill Taylor’s shoes.
Abraham Lincoln’s choice of slave-holder as V.P., though “baffling” now, was seen as “a stroke of political genius” by his peers. James Garfield was not happy that Chester Arthur, a vain “machine politician,” was his running mate. Teddy Roosevelt’s enemies figured that placing him into a veep position would keep him out of the Oval Office (they were wrong). Calvin Coolidge had to deal with his boss’s scandals, Harry Truman didn’t want to be on FDR’s ticket, and Lyndon Johnson took a gamble…
Was this all because of a Native American curse? Says Cohen, that old rumor still swirls but no, it’s just a myth. Nobody’d even heard of the curse until the early 1900s and its source is just another one of those quirks of history that remains hidden.
And that pretty much sums up the whole of “Accidental Presidents.” It’s a history book full of things you learned in high school, but between the lines are lively and often little-known tales of politics, scandal, and a surprising amount of drama. Indeed, Cohen proves with these eight tales that history may sometimes be sandy-dry, but waves of soap opera run wild beneath that grit. To keep things spritely, he furthermore sprinkles side-tales with these stories of politics, death, and responsibility.
For history buffs, certainly, this book is a no-brainer but it’s also breezy enough to entertain anyone who looks at politics with interest these days. If that’s you, then let “Accidental Presidents” happily fill your time.
(“Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America” by Jared Cohen; c.2019, Simon & Schuster $30/ $39.99 Canada, 511 pages.)


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