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“Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America”

  • By Jared Cohen
  • c. 2019, Simon & Schuster
  • $30, $39.99 Canada; 511 pages

The position had already been filled. Some might say that there’s no sense going after a job that wasn’t available, but you applied anyhow. True, you might instead be offered a job you never wanted but that’s good, you’ll take it because, in the new book “Accidental Presidents” by Jared Cohen, you never know when opportunity might show up.

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When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, plenty of consideration was put into it, but they “didn’t think of everything.” For example, they never gave any thought to what could occur should something bad happen to any U.S. President. Apparently, the notion never came up that we’d need smooth successions to calm the nation in times of crisis, and to ensure transition of power.

The first time this disaster happened, the nation was nearing its 65th year.

William Henry Harrison, the Whig’s choice in 1840, was so strongly liked that his veep, John Tyler, was almost an afterthought so, following the inauguration, Tyler simply went home to Virginia to wait out his tenure. Thirty days after Harrison moved into the White House, though, he was dead and someone had to go fetch the new 10th President of the United States.

At the end of the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor was such a beloved man in America that “Taylormania” was everywhere, while the choice for vice president, Millard Fillmore, was “mediocre,” says Cohen. Fillmore was a bookworm, quite the contrast to “Old Rough and Ready,” but when Taylor died from a mysterious stomach bug, Fillmore had to fill Taylor’s shoes.

Abraham Lincoln’s choice of slave-holder as V.P., though “baffling” now, was seen as “a stroke of political genius” by his peers. James Garfield was not happy that Chester Arthur, a vain “machine politician,” was his running mate. Teddy Roosevelt’s enemies figured that placing him into a veep position would keep him out of the Oval Office (they were wrong). Calvin Coolidge had to deal with his boss’s scandals, Harry Truman didn’t want to be on FDR’s ticket, and Lyndon Johnson took a gamble.

Was this all because of a Native American curse? Says Cohen, that old rumor still swirls but no, it’s just a myth. Nobody’d even heard of the curse until the early 1900s and its source is just another one of those quirks of history that remains hidden.

And that pretty much sums up the whole of “Accidental Presidents”: it’s a history book full of things you learned in high school, but between the lines are lively and often little-known tales of politics, scandal, and a surprising amount of drama. Indeed, Cohen proves with these eight tales that history may sometimes be sandy-dry, but waves of soap opera run wild beneath that grit. To keep things spritely, he furthermore sprinkles side-tales with these stories of politics, death, and responsibility.

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For history buffs, certainly, this book is a no-brainer but it’s also breezy enough to entertain anyone who looks at politics with interest these days. If that’s you, then let “Accidental Presidents” happily fill your time.

“The Great Unexpected: A Novel”

  • By Dan Mooney
  • c. 2019, Park Row Books
  • $15.99, $19.99 Canada; 358 pages

You had your reasons. That’s what you tell people after you’ve made a decision. Things were left up to you, you looked at the possibilities, and there was no need for discussion. You had your reasons, and because is a good enough one. But, as in the new book, “The Great Unexpected” by Dan Mooney, you can be reasoned with.

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Mr. Miller could always keep a secret. That was because he was in a coma, which was just fine with his roommate, Joel Monroe. Miller didn’t fill the time with inane chit-chat and Joel didn’t have to be concerned with niceties. Miller kept to himself. After Joel’s wife, Lucey, died, Joel wished everybody at Hilltop Nursing Home was more like Miller.

Given that, it seems odd to say that Joel was lonesome, but he was. Miserable and grumpy, too. Then Miller died, and it reminded Joel of Lucey’s death, which made him feel worse, even though nurse Liam and nurse Angelica were nice; even though Joel had a daughter who dutifully spent a half-hour a week visiting; even though she brought her adult children, who obviously weren’t interested in their grandfather.

Joel knew it was time to investigate suicide options, “before something else killed him.”

And then a new resident moved into the empty bed next to Joel’s.

Frank de Selby was a noisy “popinjay” with a fake accent and a fake name. de Selby (real name: Frank Adams) wore scarves with affectation, kissed ladies hands, was oh-so-witty, spoke like a Shakespearean, and told everyone that he was a former actor.

Joel hated him. He hated Frank – at first, anyhow, but then Joel realized that Frank wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Without being asked, Frank helped Joel out of a couple of tight spots with the home staff, and he didn’t make Joel watch those insufferable soap operas. He even helped take notes when Joel told Frank about his plan to die.

Joel was intent on suicide. He wanted to kill himself with meaning, though, and he was ready to go – but was he ready to leave so much behind?

Of course, you’ve already figured out that this book is a charmer. You might clearly see that it’s got humorous elements, too, but you really can expect so much more in “The Great Unexpected.”

Yes, Frank and Joel are pretty well predictable as characters in a novel set in a nursing home but here, author Dan Mooney gives them sass, peppery language, and fits-with-today backgrounds that allows richer dimension to explain them better. Their miles-apart personalities enhance the story: Frank has justification for playing the dandy, Joel ruminates about a life spent as a laborer, and readers learn about them as they learn about each other. Happily, this unfolds between lines of text that match the title: unexpected, and uproariously, spit-your-coffee hilarious.

So. “The Great Unexpected” is differently predictable but its sauciness may give some readers pause. Just keep that in mind, flow with it, and you might love this novel beyond all reason.

More: Bookworm: Murderous thinking; living a lie

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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