... a discursive romp through American history that focuses on the eight presidents who took office upon the death of their predecessors ... Mr. Cohen is hard on Calvin Coolidge ... By excoriating the advisers, Mr. Cohen almost gives LBJ a pass on Vietnam, whereas in reality presidents, even those thrust into office by tragic events, make the decisions and must shoulder the blame for their mistakes. One of the many insights to be found in Accidental Presidents is that history unfolds in death as well as in life.
Cohen skirts the matter of Gerald Ford’s succession to the resigned Richard Nixon, citing his reasons for doing so, but it’s unfortunate that he almost ignores the nation’s most definitively 'accidental presidency.' But the story he does tell is illuminating, particularly in its treatment of John Tyler’s assumption of the presidency after the death of Harrison and how that event set the precedent of succession, which was far from a foregone conclusion. He also covers in depth the selection of the respective vice presidents and the detail surrounding the transitions. For a work intended for general readers, there is a surfeit of endnotes, but this is genuinely interesting history on a topic that has never been addressed in this depth.
While much is known about the two successful accidentals, Roosevelt and Truman, and the partially-successful Lyndon, the latter Johnson, much of the book’s treasure lies in earlier, lesser known accidentals ... Because the thesis of the book is about ascension to office due to a president’s death, it does not include Gerald Ford, who may well have been accidental-squared, first reaching the vice presidency only because of Spiro Agnew’s resignation under a cloud of scandal, then stepping into the Oval Office because of Richard Nixon’s resignation under his own cloud of scandal. But that, one supposes, is a topic for another book.