Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Shaped America

Apr 5, 2019

We talk with Jared Cohen, the author of "Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America." From the unready to the unexpectedly capable, we discuss the impact of vice presidents who have, on the death of a president, filled the highest office. The framers of the constitution left the question of succession largely unanswered, and the vice president was often chosen out of political necessity or to court a constituency. "Accidental Presidents" suggests it's time we pay more attention to this office. Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar in the School of Arts and Sciences at SNHU, is guest host.

GUEST: 

  • Jared Cohen - author of "Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America." He is also the author of "Children of Jihad" and "One Hundred Days of Silence."  The founder and Chief Executive Officer of Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc. From 2006 to 2010 he served as a member of the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and as a close advisor to both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He also serves as  an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Read Jared Cohen's take on how Calvin Coolidge handled the scandals of his predecessor from his book "Accidental Presidents."

Close calls: "Accidental Presidents" has some insight into the many near misses when American presidents were at risk. 

Accidental Presidents

  •   John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison who died 30 days into his term. He held office from April 4, 1841-March 4, 1845. He had never been a serious political contender. After he assumed office, he was kicked out of his own party and became the first president threatened with impeachment.
  • Millard Fillmore succeeded General Zachary Taylor and held office from July 9, 1850-March 4, 1853. He immediately sacked the entire cabinet and delayed an inevitable Civil War by standing with Henry Clay’s compromise of 1850.
  • Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln after six weeks, held office from April 15, 1865-March 4, 1869. He abandoned Lincoln's vision and sided with remnants of the Confederacy in Reconstruction. He was impeached and survived by one vote.
  • Chester Arthur succeeded James Garfield and held office from September 19, 1881 to March 4, 1885. As the embodiment of the spoils system, he was so reviled as Garfield’s successor that he had to defend himself against plotting Garfield’s assassination; but he reformed the civil service.
  • Theodore Roosevelt succeeded William McKinley and held office from September 14, 1901 to March 4, 1909. He is the exception in that he would have likely been elected President on his own. Larger-than-life, his progressive ideas and irrepressible demeanor led the Republican Party to modernity.
  • Calvin Coolidge succeeded Warren Harding and held office from August 2, 1923 to March 4, 1929. He was the definition of understatement and managed to distance himself from the Harding scandals. He preserved the White House for the Republican Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression.
  • Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt and held office from April 12, 1945 to January 20, 1953.  He was a machine politician from Missouri who surprised everybody when he  proved an able and accomplished president.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy and held office from November 22, 1963 to January 20, 1969. He was named to deliver Texas electorally. He led the nation forward on landmark Civil Rights legislation but stumbled into escalation in Vietnam.