Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen.

In short

In Accidental Presidents Jared Cohen describes the eight occasions on which a Vice President became President in the US. It’s a great concept for a book and it really shows that the direction and leadership style of the President can dictate what happens in a country.

The profiles of the Vice Presidents and Presidents are short (so don’t expect a whole lot of detail) but this never really detracts from the overall story. And, taken together, the profiles show the problems the No. 2s usually encounter and the difficulties of stepping into the No. 1s’ shoes.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.


William Henry Harrison – John Tyler

President Harrison died after just 30 days in office. Tyler became the first accidental president, most famous for annexing Texas which led to a war with Mexico.

Since there was no concrete plan of the previous president in such a short time, Tyler followed his own path.

He set the precedent for the rest of the accidental presidents when it came to the right and manner of succession. He would refuse to read any letter that addressed him other than “president”. He also showed, as with many other accidental presidents, how history can be altered by changing the man in power.

Tyler had continuous issues with the backing of his party and the political bosses. In fact, just before congress adjourned five cabinet officers resigned making it especially difficult to fulfill the positions.

But this gave him the opportunity to be unshackled from the party and to become independent, and able to do things his predecessor could not. The main result being the annexation of Texas, even though this sparked a war for his successor.

Zachary Taylor – Millard Fillmore

The former was a hero of the Mexican war and died one year into his presidency. The latter fired the entire cabinet and tried to break the deadlock on slavery (temporarily postponing the civil war).

When Fillmore became president he cleaned the cabinet. It was considered one of the weakest in history, but since he felt that he had been excluded for the first 16 months as vice-president he wanted them gone. The cabinet members followed the precedent of offering their resignations to the new president. But they were very surprised to hear that their resignations were accepted.

Since he never expected to be president Fillmore didn’t really have a vision. As a result he relied mostly on advisors (especially since he fired the entire cabinet). He did try to break the deadlock on slavery and conducted a compromise that would stop the threat of secession of southern states (or even war) – at least postponing it for a little bit.

Abraham Lincoln – Andrew Johnson

Lincoln was not expecting to win his re-election easily, so he needed to select a vice president that was pro-war and from a border state. Andrew Johnson fit the bill: he was a slave owner and a racist, but above all he was in favor of the union. So as long as the southern states tried to secede he would support the war. After the war was over though, he helped the south to reconstitute and failed to use the opportunity of victory to improve civil rights.

Johnson was chosen as a short-term choice to help win the re-election, but he would have long-term negative consequences.

During the civil war Johnson was all for harsh punishment for the southern states – but this was not based on anti-racism ideals, but rather pro-union necessities.

His main priority was to speed up reintegration of states after war. To him, all superfluous requirements (such as black suffrage, civil rights, et cetera) would only be additional obstacles. So instead he delegated the civil rights discussion to the states themselves. The southern states made good use of this, of course, and in the end little changed for former slaves.

James Garfield – Chester Arthur

Garfield won the presidential nomination without even running – but everyone loved him, and his main aim was to take on the political spoils system. Arthur was exactly the opposite; in fact, he was a product of the spoils system. While everyone feared for the worst, Arthur actually managed to have a respectable presidency.

The public was not enthusiastic that Arthur became president: what little they knew of him, they didn’t like. Garfield was respected, had moral rectitude, was intelligent, and a self-made man. Arthur was uninspiring, lazy, elitist, and a machine politician. While he was vice president Arthur had also schemed against the president with his opponents.

Cohen describes Arthur as probably being lazier than any other previous president. He arrived late to work, procrastinated with decision making, and never really worked a full day or week. He “never did today what he could put off until tomorrow”.

Surprisingly, Arthur had a very respectable presidency. As one journalist wrote: “No man ever entered the presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired…more generally accepted.” He didn’t bow down to the machine politicians or spoils system, used his veto power wisely, and started the construction of a modernized navy.

William McKinley – Theodore Roosevelt

McKinley was a friend of businesses and trusts, and against a war with Spain. Roosevelt was “promoted upwards” by New York Republicans so he couldn’t interfere locally. He was also the first accidental president to be re-elected on his own ticket.

Roosevelt as a Renaissance Man: he had a lust for adventure, wrote prolifically, was an excellent orator, an amateur zoologist, biologist, ornithologist & taxidermist, hunted many different kinds of animals, and was of course a political success.

He also exercised vigorously. On one occasion, with the French ambassador, he insisted in playing two sets of tennis, going for a jog, and doing a medicine ball workout session. When Roosevelt asked: “What would you like to do now?” The ambassador responded: “If it’s just the same with you, Mr. President, I’d like to lie down and die.”

In contrast to the previous accidental presidents, Roosevelt understood that a complete reversal of the previous presidents policy was not wise, nor that is was good to get rid of the existing cabinet. So he tried to get everyone in line. Over time he left McKinley in the dust (which the previous accidental presidents were not able to do) and started shifting the policy.

Warren Harding – Calvin Coolidge

Harding was elected with a campaign that focused on returning things to normal, but his administration was corrupt and faced a lot of controversy. The stress and the potential of scandals leaking out was too much and so he died in office. Coolidge managed to distance himself from the scandals, and formed an image of “silent Cal”.

The more Harding discovered about the scandals of his cabinet, the greater his burden became. He even said: “My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God-damn friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”

In many ways Coolidge was unremarkable. He had done little to excel, wasn’t hardworking, and was known to sleep eleven hours a day. In a way he was faceless, as some anecdotes show. ‘As the vice president attempted to return to his hotel suite, a marshal stopped him, at which point he insisted, “I’m the vice president.” It seemed all was well and Coolidge had effectively pulled rank, until the marshal asked, “What are you vice president of?” A visibly annoyed Coolidge answered, “I am the vice president of the United States,” a response that led the marshal to order him, “Come right down… I thought you were the vice president of the hotel.”

His quiet image worked in a time when the economy was growing and everyone was benefiting – there was no need for a figurehead. He cultivated his image as ‘Silent Cal’. There are few good anecdotes about this. Such as when a reporter demanded an exclusive interview, which Coolidge accepted, and where he answered every question with “no comment.” Or when during a party at the white house a guest ‘approached him saying “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” To her dismay, President Coolidge replied: “You lose.”

“Coolidge used to argue that it was in the national interest for him to take long afternoon naps because he couldn’t be initiating anything while asleep.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt & Harry Truman

Roosevelt nearly got assassinated, but he was remarkably stoic after coming away unscathed. ‘This was Roosevelt’s personality. He had succumbed to polio, resurrected a political career, and was now elected president of the United States. He took a pragmatic approach to life’s obstacles and didn’t dwell on them. Much like his cousin Teddy, he was always in forward motion, although instead of outpacing life’s challenges, he simply chose to deny their existence. That was part of the power of FDR.’

Truman was not really informed and kept up to speed by FDR, even though he was a dying man. So not only did he have to play catch up on very complex developments (the war in Europe, Stalin & Yalta, the pacific theater, nuclear bomb, et cetera), he also had to fill the shoes of a great president. It’s very remarkable that Truman was able to do this.

Cohen calls Truman one of two most successful accidental presidents. Truman was able to be very decisive in both policy and his choice of advisors – that was one of his key strengths.

John F. Kennedy & Lyndon Johnson

Kennedy was the youngest elected president, and while he was very good at saying the right things, his actions and policy decisions were lacking. He also escalated the war in Vietnam. Johnson went from being the most powerful man in the Senate to a vice presidency where he was ignored. As president he pushed through landmark civil rights legislation but continued the escalation of the Vietnam war.

Johnson’s fight for civil rights baffled people at the time. It’s possible he had a personal transformation, but more likely is that he understood the changing mood of the country and realized that he needed to act.

“It was the goddamndest thing. Here was a young whippersnapper, malaria-ridden and yallah, sickly, sickly. He never said a word of importance in the Senate and never did a thing…somehow, with his books and his Pulitzer Prizes, he managed to create the image of himself as a shining intellectual, a youthful leader who could change the face of the country.” – Johnson on Kennedy

Johnson of course continued the escalation of the Vietnam war, something he saw as inevitable due to the Domino Theory. But this was not his main aim for the presidency: he wanted to pass civil rights reform and promote education and “beautification”.

Conclusion

Since the first accidental president there has been an evolution of succession rights: designated survivors, continuity of government, et cetera. But the vice presidency is still a strange position: up to JFK there was a 23% chance that the vice president would become president. So even though the position is important, not a lot of effort was made to select the right person. It’s often a political choice (to win a certain state, or appeal to a certain voter base), but ultimately the vice president should be someone who is ‘presidential’.


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