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Previously Read Books

May 2024

Accidental Presidents by Jared Cohen

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The strength and prestige of the American presidency has waxed and waned since George Washington. Accidental Presidents looks at eight men who came to the office without being elected to it. It demonstrates how the character of the man in that powerful seat affects the nation and world.

Eight men have succeeded to the presidency when the incumbent died in office. In one way or another they vastly changed our history. Only Theodore Roosevelt would have been elected in his own right. Only TR, Truman, Coolidge, and LBJ were re-elected.

John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison who died 30 days into his term. He was kicked out of his party and became the first president threatened with impeachment. Millard Fillmore succeeded esteemed General Zachary Taylor. 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 our greatest president, sided with remnants of the Confederacy in Reconstruction. Chester Arthur, the embodiment of the spoils system, was so reviled as James Garfield’s successor that he had to defend himself against plotting Garfield’s assassination; but he reformed the civil service. Theodore Roosevelt broke up the trusts. Calvin Coolidge silently cooled down the Harding scandals and preserved the White House for the Republican Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Truman surprised everybody when he succeeded the great FDR and proved an able and accomplished president. Lyndon B. Johnson was named to deliver Texas electorally. He led the nation forward on Civil Rights but failed on Vietnam.

Accidental Presidents adds immeasurably to our understanding of the power and limits of the American presidency in critical times.

April 2024

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann  

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On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain.

While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.

But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death - for whomever the court found guilty could hang.

The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers.

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