Accidental Presidents: A Conversation with Historian Jared CohenBreaking News
tags: presidential history, US History
With 20 candidates and 2 Democratic debates spread over 48 hours last week, the 2020 Presidential campaign season is officially underway. We know the process: For the next 16 months, candidates will debate, boast, fundraise, debate, and fundraise some more. Then on Nov. 3, 2020, we’ll have the decision – the President will be chosen.
But what about when we get a new President not over two years, but in a heart beat? When we don’t elect our President following an intense, 500-day process, but rather get our new leader instantaneously and by accident.
I’m talking, of course, about the times when we’ve gotten a new President because the sitting one died.
To answer the quiz show portion of our podcast, it’s happened eight times in our history: John Tyler; Millard Fillmore; Andrew Johnson; Chester Arthur; Theodore Roosevelt;Calvin Coolidge;Harry Truman; Lyndon B. Johnson.
These surprise Presidents have ranged from highly successful – Teddy Roosevelt – to the downright disastrous, we’re talking about you, Andrew Johnson. You also may be surprised to learn that while the Founding Fathers created an extraordinary system of government that, at least until recently, seems to have accounted for nearly every challenge… they spent precious attention on the issue of succession, including – incredibly – leaving open the question of whether the elevated Vice President was now “Acting President” or actually and in fact, President.
So what does history tell us about these leaders, the process, our country – about what happens when accidents occur?
Jared Cohen has written the NY Times best-selling book – “Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America.” It’s incredibly researched and better written. Cohen offers a unique way look at our history – and the many ways our country evolved purely based on chance: Because an assassin or disease forced an immediate change in our land’s highest office.
More on Jared, whose background is as interesting as the book: He is the founder and CEO of Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc. – that’s Google’s parent company. He also serves as an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, Cohen ran Google Ideas and served as chief advisor to Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. From 2006-10 he served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as a close advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. And as if that’s not enough, this new book isn’t even Cohen’s first NY Times bestseller.
Chris Riback: Jared, thanks for joining. I appreciate your time.
Jared Cohen: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: I was traveling the other day with my daughter, college visits, and she asked what book I was reading. I told her about Accidental Presidents. Her immediate reaction, "That's such a good idea. How do people come up with ideas like that?" I showed her my tentative list of questions that I'd been working on. The first of which was how'd you come up with the idea for the book? Was this always a fascination of yours? There you go, inquiring minds young and old want to know the same thing. What made you write this excellent book?
Jared Cohen: I love that father-daughter conversation is the origin of the question why did I write Accident Presidents because my parents bought me a children's book when I was eight years old called “The Buck Stops Here.” It was one of those rhyming books with page devoted to each president. My poor parents didn't realize that I would have to... That I would basically become fixated on the deaths and the assassinations that happened to eight of our presidents. My parents had to have these heavy conversations with me as an eight year old. The interest never went away. It manifested itself as collecting campaign memorabilia and locks of presidential hair, which is weird until you see it.
Then when my wife was pregnant with our first child, I needed a nesting activity and I decided, "You know what? I've spent my whole life obsessing over the eight times in history a president has died in office and now I'm going to finally write about it."
Chris Riback: Why is collecting presidential hair only weird until you see it? It seems to me like it would get even weirder once I saw it.
Jared Cohen: Because it's so well-framed and on my wall that it will obfuscate any sense of anxiety you have about why somebody would have locks of presidential hair.
Chris Riback: I'll take your word on it. I mean the stuff you've written seems... You seem to have all your facts right, so I'll believe you on that. But I got to tell you, I'm skeptical. It sounds a little creepy. I guess your parents were never like, "Gosh. Why didn't we just get the kid a book on baseball or something? It just would've been simpler."
Jared Cohen: Well, now, of course, they’re proud that “Accidental Presidents” is out and their son is out there talking about it. But I will tell you, what's been fun about writing this book is I love history, I love politics, and I'm constantly musing on lessons in leadership. This book is a great way to combine those three passions.
Chris Riback: Terrific. Let's talk about the book. I guess my final note to what you've just said, thank goodness you've done something where your parents finally have something to be proud of about you. Everything up until now you haven't done that much until this book, so I feel terrific for them. That's fortunate. You're not going to comment on that I know. We'll move on.
Jared Cohen: I'll pass the message along.
Chris Riback: Pass it along. Before we get into the specific leaders and you write about all eight of them, I think it's helpful to set the context around succession, the history, and your paradigm for evaluation. Let's start with the history. What is the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, and why was it unclear whether the vice president becomes president or acting president?
Jared Cohen: Let's start with the framers of the Constitution, who weren't very serious about wanting a vice president. They ultimately threw it in there at the last minute as an electoral mechanism where the person who got the second largest number of votes would end up as vice president. Then what was happening is that was yielding ties and then the 12th Amendment fixed it, but the constitution offers no clarity on whether or not the vice president becomes president or discharges the duties as president when there's a vacancy in the oval office.
When John Tyler of Virginia, who's the vice president, finds out that William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, dies after just 30 days, he spends his first months arguing with the cabinet and with congress about whether he's an acting president or whether he is the president. There's been several attempts to iterate on what the constitution says beginning with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, but it doesn't clarify this issue.
It offers no provision for replacing the vice president and all the Act of 1792 says is that if there's a vacancy involved the presidency and the vice presidency, the president pro tempore attempts an acting president until a special election is called, and then is followed by the Speaker of the House. Now throughout our history we've iterated on this. In 1886, they got rid of the president pro tempore and Speaker of the House as part of succession and added the cabinet. Then Harry Truman in 1948 signs another Presidential Succession Act that puts the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore back in the line of succession, but has the speaker first and then the president pro tempore.
But you don't formalize any of this until the 25th Amendment passed at the end of LBJ's administration.
Chris Riback: It's incredible. I mean I guess you'd been obsessing about this since you were eight, but for someone who's come to it recently through your book, it surprised me. Why did these framers who seemingly thought through everything, it's almost like they didn't think that portion, the vice president and whether he is president or acting president, that they just didn't think that through as much as they had thought through everything else? That was surprising to me.
Were you surprised by it or was there a reason that they just kind of hadn't emphasized the vice presidential role in the first place and is more an electoral thing and why do we really have to spend a bunch of time thinking about whether it's acting or fall?
Jared Cohen: In writing “Accidental Presidents,” I will say that this was my biggest frustration. I admire the Founding Fathers tremendously and I can even give them a free pass for not getting all of the details in there. What I can't give them a free pass for and what was sort of endlessly frustrating and confusing is why there were multiple opportunities to clarify this and to clarify if with the words and the insights of the people who drafted the language in the constitution, and we never seem to engage at any of the close calls. James Madison, who was at the center of all of this, was the first president to nearly die in office.
He was basically on his deathbed with illness and then his wife, Dolly Madison, sends a letter to the senate because they've already begun proceedings to explore what it would look like for Elbridge Gerry to end up as acting president. She writes the letter saying he's made a full recovery, which he eventually does, but she exaggerates his well-being as a way to stop the proceedings. Then Andrew Jackson is shot at point blank by a man named Richard Lawrence who thinks he's the king of England. The gun malfunctions, which had a one in 125,000 chance of happening. Jackson, once he realizes he's not been shot, proceeds to beat his assailant with his cane.
You had those two instances where you still had framers of the constitution and people who were at the constitutional convention and does not appear that any sort of clarifying conversation happened in response to either of those close calls.
Chris Riback: This theme of luck or fate, and I want to ask you about that later in the conversation, is really... That's also something that you made me think about and that just comes across. I'll ask you about that in a bit. Your paradigm. That's the history. What makes in your view a bad or good accidental president? Does it have to do, you just mentioned this, with honoring the legacy or is it building one's own path? How did you make the judgment?
Jared Cohen: Each of the accidental presidents experiences the same handicap, which is they're completely aloof and not integrated into the administration that they end up inheriting and in charge of. They all have that stumbling block out of the gate. They also each have the issue of some portion of the cabinet couldn't stand them for one reason or another. There's two things that make some of them successful and make some of them failures. The ones who are most successful are the ones who find the balance between keeping the right members of the cabinet and getting rid of the wrong members of the cabinet. Because it's not just that these were maybe the men or not the right men for the job.
It's also about chemistry with the president. If you look at LBJ, Kennedy's national security advisors couldn't stand him and the chemistry wasn't just there and that's before you even get to whether or not they were the right people. But the second factor that determines their success is the context of the moment. If you look at Harry Truman as a classic example of this, Harry Truman never should have been successful given how ill-prepared he was for the presidency. First of all, he's thrown onto the ticket for no other reason than the Democratic Party bosses can't fathom the idea of Henry Wallace as president. They view him as far too liberal and a Soviet sympathizer.
Everyone knows FDR is a dying man in 1944, but you can't talk about it. It's the secret that nobody ever articulates. Truman in his 82 days as vice president, not a single intelligence briefing, doesn't meet a single foreign leader, isn't briefed on the Manhattan Project, isn't aware of what's going on at Yalta or the happenings of the war and only meets with FDR twice mostly about superficial things. Then on April 12, 1945 he finds himself President of the United States. The battle of Okinawa is raging in the Pacific. He has to make a decision about dropping the bomb or potentially losing a million men with an invasion in Japan.
Stalin was reneging on almost every one of his promises at Yalta. He has to develop an opinion about Stalin and Churchill and all of these world leaders, and he has to figure out where these countries are on a map. How is it possible that a man like Truman was so successful? What you conclude is that FDR's advisors, the George Marshall's, the Dean Acheson's, as much as they miss FDR and as much as they felt they had nothing in common as sort of Ivy League intellectuals with a provincial oh shucks politician from Missouri, the fate of the world rested on whether or not Harry Truman was successful.
You compare and contrast that with LBJ where the fate of the world did not rest on whether or not Vietnam was successful or not. You see that reflected in a lot of the tensions between LBJ and his advisors. But then you contrast it with Andrew Johnson who presided over one of the most important moments in our history which was reconstruction and he completely botched it. Andrew Johnson is kind of the anti-Truman and then Truman is really this exceptional story. George H. W. Bush before he passed away told me in an interview that they expected very little from Truman, but he, as somebody who was deployed in the Pacific, said he always believed that Harry Truman saved his life.
Chris Riback: First of all, what a wonderful quote that is from President Bush, but also what an interesting way to think about it that Andrew Johnson is almost the reciprocal of Truman. I want to ask you about Johnson because his pre-presidential, pre-vice presidential history was so strong. You really lay that out in incredible ways. But very quickly because you were harsh, I thought, on LBJ. Probably more harsh than I might have been, although you put your focus so strongly on that relationship with the advisors. Absolutely point taken.
In terms of results though, and I know you give him credit, does he deserve incredible credit for evolving from really an ignored vice-president, like all of them were, to a powerful president who absolutely advanced so many of JFK's domestic goals, some of them, many of them, perhaps in ways that JFK might not have been able to do himself? I thought you were a little harsh on LBJ. Tell me why.
Jared Cohen: It's interesting. I actually think that the criticism might be that I'm overly harsh on JFK. If I look at LBJ, I think there's no doubt that he proved to be a great domestic president. Getting three pieces of landmark legislation passed, including one before the 1964 election, only he could have done that. The Kennedy's were prepared to pay lip service to civil rights, but if you look their reaction to the bombing in Birmingham at the church, it was very clear that they weren't prepared to back it up with action. They said just enough to be able to feel like they were able to get black people to get behind them in the 1964 election, but it lacked the meat and the legislative commitment that Johnson exhibited.
I think that Bobby Kennedy eventually does one of the great 180 turnarounds on civil rights, but it's not until well after the 1964 election. If you look at Vietnam, the narrative often on LBJ is had Kennedy survived, you wouldn't have had civil rights in 1960s, but you also wouldn't have had Vietnam. I'm not sure that last point is true. I think that Kennedy was every bit as capable of going down the same slippery slope as Lyndon Johnson. It may have looked different and he may have been less pre-disposed to escalated to 500,000 troops. But remember, it's John F. Kennedy who more than doubles the foreign assistance in the Vietnam.
It's John F. Kennedy who escalates the number of advisors a couple days before his assassination. It's John F. Kennedy who supports and backs the coup over Diem where the full effects of that hadn't fully played out. I think that both Kennedy and Johnson were influenced by the idea of not losing Vietnam on their watch. I think it's sort of an architecture of the guardians of Kennedy's reputation that we too often let him off the hook for this.
Chris Riback: I don't disagree on the JFK point. I was just thinking more on LBJ. Though like everyone else, I'm waiting for Caro's last book in the series before I make my own final judgment on him. Let's talk about Andrew Johnson who you mentioned before. Because he was such a bad president, many of us forget or don't know what an incredibly honorable senator from Tennessee he was. Tell me about that and what changed. How did he, in your words, squander Reconstruction so badly?
Jared Cohen: Yes. I think if you look at Andrew Johnson and evaluate... I set out to want to really vindicate Lincoln, because the great stain on Lincoln's record is that even though back then the nominee of the party didn't select the vice president, Lincoln had a very active conspiratorial hand in being part of an intrigue to throw Hannibal Hamlin off the ticket and replace him with Andrew Johnson. The simple argument is he needed a war democrat from a border state because victory in 1864 seemed very unlikely. But if you look back on the history, Andrew Johnson in 1864, he had been the only southern senator to stay loyal to the union. He was revered in the north.
Lincoln used him like a celebrity jack in the box and couldn't get enough of the Andrew Johnson luster and fairy dust that rubbed off on him. Andrew Johnson's racism and the fact that he was a slave owner, it was really overshadowed by his love for the union and his recognition of the fact that the best way to reunite the union was to break the confederacy. The best way to break the confederacy was to defeat slavery and to defeat the confederacy. His rhetoric at the time that he became vice president was more forward leaning on civil rights and punishment of traders and even Abraham Lincoln. He's also the military governor of Tennessee at much risk of to his own life.
There's this great moment where he emancipates the slaves in Tennessee, implementing the emancipation proclamation. He's standing on the capitol steps in Nashville and he gets declared by a group of freed man as the "Black Moses." He embraces that and declares himself the "Black Moses." Then you wonder what happened to this man? Did he have a 180 turn? Andrew Johnson was born a racist and died a racist. It's just that so long as the civil war raged on, it was about defeating the confederacy. Then when the civil war was over, it became about putting the union back together, in which case his view was let's just let the states deal with civil rights.
Let's give amnesty to everybody. Even though the states have voted back into power all the old elements of the confederacy, including the confederate vice president, let's just get them seated in congress. There's this great moment with Andrew Johnson. It's one of the most embarrassing moments in American history where he delivers his vice presidential oath of office completely drunk. It's supposed to last less than a minute. It's a 17 minute drunken tirade in which he lashes out at the entire cabinet. Can't remember their names. They tried to rush the swearing in on the bible. He kisses it and slobbers and drools all over it.
Then Abraham Lincoln, who at the time has his head literally buried in his hands in embarrassment, walked side by side with Andrew Johnson as they walk outside. To try the break the ice and ease the tension and awkwardness, he points out Frederick Douglas who at the time is a friend of Lincoln's and the most famous ex-slave in the country. Frederick Douglas in his autobiography writes about that moment about how he saw Andrew Johnson walking aside Lincoln and he thanked the heavens that Andrew Johnson wasn't President of the United States and declared that "I saw the look in his eyes and the hatred at which he glared at me with. I realized he was no friend of my race."
What Frederick Douglas didn't realize at the time because he wasn't allowed into the chamber is that Andrew Johnson was completely inebriated. He did come to the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons.
Chris Riback: Wrapping up on the evaluation of the best and the worst, if Andrew Johnson I think was... You kind of put him at or near the bottom. Your number one is Teddy Roosevelt.
Jared Cohen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris Riback: He did it the best. Why Teddy? I mean I think we all know, but from you, why Teddy?
Jared Cohen: Teddy Roosevelt ends up as vice president as a punishment because the New York party bosses can't deal with him anymore and they want to exile him to the political equivalent of Elba. Now, Teddy Roosevelt is also the only accidental president who probably would have eventually become president in his own right. In fact, he's the first accidental president to be elected in his own right in 1904. But Teddy Roosevelt, I don't believe that had McKinley not been assassinated, the country was ready to elect somebody that progressive at that period.
Now they may have been three years and they certainly proved to be when Teddy was elected in 1904, but his elevation in 1901 I do believe accelerated the progressive movement in the country which led to the trust busting and certain elements of social progress which we now know quite well. But we should be thankful that Teddy Roosevelt didn't preside over a war. As great as he is and as much as he's admired and as fascinating and colorful a character he is, the man just loved war too much to be commander in chief and preside over one.
Chris Riback: If he had presided over one, he might not have sat in the White House. He might have gone to the front lines. I mean he's not a guy who would have wanted to avoid action or the ability to shoot a gun I don't think.
Jared Cohen: One of the things I write about in “Accidental Presidents” is when he was assistant secretary of the Navy in McKinley's first term. The secretary of the Navy ends up literally stepping out of the office for half a day to get back therapy. He's so concerned about Teddy Roosevelt as his number two that he literally instructs him not to take the country to war while he's gone. As one biographer writes, Teddy Roosevelt immediately after the secretary of the Navy went to do his back therapy essentially gives what he described as an orgy of orders that mobilized the country for war against Spain.
Chris Riback: In addition to orgies of that sort, you write and you know so much about fate and luck and some of it is over you talked about the misfiring of the gun. You didn't mention yet all of the assassination attempts that failed on Andrew Johnson which was also fascinating, and obviously just the whole title of the book, the whole concept of Accidental Presidents. In reading the book, it's impossible not to think about ideas like fate and luck. I'm curious what you think about them. They're not exactly the same thing and I'm also kind of curious if your views evolved through the process of writing. First, are you a fatalist would you say?
Second, on luck, I've personally always believed in the old line that often gets attributed to Thomas Jefferson, though not fully proven, that “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” After researching these lucky ascendant presidents, do you believe in luck or do you believe we make our own luck?
Jared Cohen: I think it's a combination of the two. I think we're lucky that this only happened eight times. Because as I think I mentioned earlier, you have 19 instances where the president almost died in office. When I'm talking about close calls, I'm not talking about spoiled plots and threatening letters. I'm talking about two presidents shot at point blank. I'm talking about multiple assassination attempts. I'm talking about a suicide bomber standing four feet from JFK as president-elect and deciding not to the pull the trigger in his pants because he saw too many children around.
I'm talking about FDR as president-elect having five shots in 15 seconds fired at him, but a woman with her purse smacking the assassin and thwarting his aim. He killed four people nearby instead of the president-elect. I mean that is serious luck. If you look at how little though the framers of the constitution had given to presidential succession and then if you look at how subsequent politicians and leaders basically winged it, there's two conclusions that you can come to. You can say that we've been remarkably lucky that only Andrew Johnson was a catastrophe, which is a fair conclusion, or you can say that maybe the framers of the constitution were onto something.
What they proved to us with this case study, this long vulnerability of constitutional question, is that maybe the constitution as a living document is a much more powerful thing than we realize.
Chris Riback: Are you fatalist?
Jared Cohen: I don't know if I'm a fatalist. I think that our history would have been vastly different had Andrew Johnson not been elevated to the presidency by the bullet of John Wilkes Booth's gun. When I say he was a catastrophe, we were supposed to get Abraham Lincoln's vision for reconstruction. Instead, we got the last president to own slaves, a man who didn't emancipate his own slaves until seven months after the emancipation proclamation, paved the way for the black codes and the Jim Crow laws which were still suffering the repercussions of today.
Chris Riback: To close out Jared, looking forward, you write about this at the end of the book, as you think about the 2020 election and 2024 let's say or '28 and just kind of going forward, do you have any hope that we will consider the VP slot as more than a political tactic and that we'll think more deeply or differently about succession? I mean you suggest ways that this could change largely through the political parties, but you don't seem to think that it's highly likely. What are your thoughts?
Jared Cohen: I think there's zero evidence that we've learned our lesson from this at all. I think it's a consequence of two things. One, when you're on the political ropes and you're trying to get a bump in the polls, that's all you're thinking about when you're in the middle of a heated campaign season. When you hear about candidates wanting to come out of the gate with a running mate or you have choices like Sarah Palin in modern times, what you conclude is we have not drawn the right lessons from the accidental presidents. But the other thing that's amazing to me is we are in the longest period of time in history without a president dying in office.
You may have three... You have an incumbent who's in his 70s and you have two potential front runners on the Democratic side who are both in their late 70s. If there was ever an election that we should be thinking about the vice presidency as more than just a way to get a bump in the polls, it's this one, but it's a modern day phenomenon for the party's nominee or the candidate to choose their own running mate. Historically, it's been the choice of the party and they've been nominated very separately. It's oftentimes been imposed on the candidate without them really having them much of a say in it. I think that there's some virtue in that.
Chris Riback: One more question about you that came to mind and please, I mean this in only the most endearing of ways. You write these books, you've had these incredible roles in public policy. You also are CEO of Jigsaw. You're one of the few people who are both a policy wonk and a technology nerd. Do you identify yourself as more one than the other? Do you hate the terms so much and I've just succeeded in the last 30 seconds of this conversation in offending you? How do you bring those two together?
Jared Cohen: No, not offended at all. I view my career as a portfolio of curiosities. I'm always trying to make sure that I'm properly hedged against my different curiosities. Right now I'm CEO of a tech organization and I'm constantly thinking about innovation in the future, which I'm very long on in my portfolio. And yet, I have this love for history. The way some people deal with this is they mediated or they go to the gym or they join a basketball team. I dig into history. For me, digging into history is good for the soul. It's something I wake up everyday thinking about. When you work on a project for five years, you find remarkable ways to tie it to your interest.
I like thinking about issues that I'm confronting as a leader at work and asking the question what would someone like Harry Truman have done or what would someone like Teddy Roosevelt have done.
Chris Riback: I love that phrase, a portfolio of curiosities. I'm going to quote that. Jared, thank you. Thanks for the conversation and thank you for the book. Just a terrific read.
Jared Cohen: Thank you so much.