The vice president is a unique political position in that the person inhabiting it remains largely forgotten until they’re needed. Yet, eight times an American president has died in office, and eight times the vice president has assumed that office. With such a high frequency of occurrence, it could be assumed that the Framers of the Constitution understood the necessity of keeping the country going after the death of a president. And yet the vast majority of these successions have led to, at best, tumultuous administrations.
Author Jared Cohen deftly explores each of these administrations, starting with the disastrous John Tyler, best known for being kicked out of his own party and as the first president threatened with impeachment. These chapters on the early presidential successors are as twisty as the administrations they describe. Making ample use of anecdotes pulled from a wealth of research, Cohen details the confusion that originally surrounded presidential succession. With John Tyler, was he supposed to be the president, or an acting president? And what became of the vacant vice presidency? Though codified in the Constitution, the language wasn’t always clear.
But beyond this, Cohen paints broad portraits of each of his eight subjects. To gain a full understanding of their ascension, each section contains a brief biography followed by an in-depth look at their political careers. By the time he gets around to exploring their actual administrations, Cohen has provided plenty of background to showcase why their terms went in the directions they did. Teddy Roosevelt, forward and focused, grasped the reins from an assassinated William McKinley. Meanwhile, Andrew Johnson, never fully removed from the South, bungled Reconstruction after Lincoln’s assassination.
While not exhaustive, Cohen provides each president enough attention that his work feels comprehensive. It should be noted, however, that he does not discuss Gerald Ford in-depth because Ford became president through Nixon’s resignation rather than death. It’s understandable that this case doesn’t meet his scope, but this chapter is missed if only because it would have provided more pages to an engrossing read.
Presidential succession seems to be on a lot of minds, and it’s impossible not to read this without considering the current administration. Cohen is careful point out that he started this book far before the last presidential election cycle. Even so, it’s a fascinating examination of the succession process while serving as a reminder of the importance of the often thankless role of vice president— they’re only a heartbeat away from serving.
Title: Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America
Author: Jared Cohen
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: April 09, 2019
Classification: History, Nonfiction, Politics
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.