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'Accidental Presidents' Looks At Achievements Of Vice Presidents Who Became President


Vice President is the least important job until it's the most important job - that moment when tragedy strikes and the person a heartbeat away from the presidency becomes the president. But until that moment, they're often out of the loop like HBO's fictional Vice President Selina Meyers (ph) on the show "Veep."


JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Hey, Sue, did the president call?

SUFE BRADSHAW: (As Sue Wilson) No.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Did the president call?

BRADSHAW: (As Sue Wilson) No.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Sue, did the president call? Did the president call?

BRADSHAW: (As Sue Wilson) No.

LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Sue, did the president call?

BRADSHAW: (As Sue Wilson) No.

CORNISH: Eight vice presidents have become president after the man they served died. Jared Cohen writes about them in his book "Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America." William Henry Harrison's Vice President John Tyler was the first.

JARED COHEN: John Tyler was supposed to be a footnote in history. He was the second part of the catchy phrase Tippecanoe and Tyler too in 1840, and he was thrown on the ticket to win Virginia and be a nod to states rightists, neither of which happened. So William Henry Harrison delivers the longest inaugural address in history, and then John Tyler plans to skip town and spend four years in irrelevance as vice president. So imagine his surprise when 30 days later William Henry Harrison dies in office.

And the language in the Constitution is vague around presidential succession. The language is vague enough that you could interpret the vice president discharges the duties but as an acting president. But John Tyler interpreted it differently, insisting that he is the president. Ultimately he wins that battle and sets a precedent that makes seven other men president of the United States.

CORNISH: Did the 25th Amendment solve some of the biggest issues? Walk us through kind of how that changed things.

COHEN: So the 25th Amendment formalizes the precedent that was set by John Tyler in 1841 that says that the president - the vice president becomes president upon a vacancy. But there's a much more important thing that the 25th Amendment does because the Tyler precedent really holds. And when Taylor dies in 1850, nobody fights the idea that Fillmore is president. But there was no provision for replacing the vice president until 1967 when the 25th Amendment is ratified.

And what's fascinating about this is that wasn't in place when Kennedy was assassinated. So when Lyndon Johnson is engulfed in a scandal involving an old Senate aide, there is reason to believe he would have either been thrown off the ticket the week after Kennedy's assassination or had to resign as vice president. And that's very important because had Lyndon Johnson abruptly ascended to the presidency and then been in a position where he would have had to resign at the height of the Cold War, there would have been no provision for replacing the vice president, and you could have had a major succession crisis.

CORNISH: What did you find as you did the research about the things that can handicap a vice president politically?

COHEN: The biggest thing that handicaps a vice president politically is when they're completely ostracized and not integrated into the administration. And if you look at the eight men who ascended to the presidency upon the death of their predecessor, all of them except for Calvin Coolidge was completely estranged from the administration. And most of them had a venomous relationship with the president and his key advisers.

CORNISH: So you have to play catch-up, and everyone hates you.

COHEN: Exactly, which makes it very hard to lead on day one.

CORNISH: I want to talk about what makes for a successful president or not-so-successful president when they take office in this way. Who were those successes to your mind?

COHEN: To me, the biggest success is Harry Truman because Harry Truman - if you look at his background and the moment at which he was thrown on the ticket, there has never been a man less prepared for a more significant moment in the history of our republic. Truman in his 82 days as vice president - he only meets FDR twice. He doesn't get a single intelligence briefing. He isn't briefed on the atomic bomb. And yet in his first four months, Truman makes some of the most important decisions that shaped the end of the war and the post-war order and ends up being the most unexpected success out of all of the accidental presidents.


HARRY TRUMAN: The supreme need of our time is for men to learn to live together in peace and harmony.

CORNISH: It's clear when you go through the different chapters of the book that the ticket is always a marriage of convenience. Should we put a little more thought into that process?

COHEN: Not only is it not right. I think it's incredibly reckless. After eight presidents dying in office and, by the way, another 19 presidents almost dying in office, you still get situations like 2008 where Sarah Palin is thrown on the ticket to try to get an immediate bump in the polls at a particular moment.

But between the period of 1841 and 1963, the president used to die in office every 10 to 20 years. And at no point did we exhibit any degree of thought around whether or not the vice president might become president of the United States. The only person that appears to have done this is in 1900 when the party bosses exile Teddy Roosevelt to the political equivalent of Elba by throwing him onto the ticket with McKinley. Mark Hanna, who is one of McKinley's closest confidants, reminds McKinley if they win that his responsibility is to live another four years because you can't have that maniac a heartbeat away from the presidency.

CORNISH: What's the lesson you think we should take away from the story of these men?

COHEN: There's a historic lesson, and then there's a present-day lesson. I think the present-day lesson is we're in the longest period of time without a president dying in office. We have the oldest president in the history of the republic, and the top two candidates on the Democratic side are both in their 70s. If there was ever a time to not treat the vice presidency as a political marriage of convenience to win a state, appease a constituency or get a bump in the polls, it's the presidential election of 2020?

The historic lesson is the accidental presidents who are successful - it's a mixture of the men who they inherit and how they're advised and their own ability to be decisive. And you get something like Millard Fillmore, who sacked the entire Cabinet, which was an overreach. And you get something like LBJ, who didn't muster the courage to shake up the national security side of the Cabinet. So they have to find that balance.

CORNISH: Jared Cohen is author of Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. Thank you for speaking with us.

COHEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.