- - Monday, April 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

DEAD PRESIDENTS: AN AMERICAN ADVENTURE INTO THE STRANGE DEATHS AND SURPRISING AFTERLIVES OF OUR NATION’S LEADERS

By Brady Carlson

W.W. Norton, $26.95, 304 pages

“My fascination with presidents began in elementary school,” New Hampshire National Public Radio host Brady Carlson tells readers at the beginning of his informative and eminently engaging account of how America’s chief executives died — and what happened to them then. “Back then,” he hastens to add, “it was the lives of our leaders that interested me,” and it shows, for there is nothing ghoulish or morbid about Mr. Carlson’s tone and his attitude toward his subject. Although there is suffering and sadness throughout this book, he handles it with consummate tact and taste and there is never any doubt that his eye is also on the lives these men led which, after all, is why we are interested in their exits from them, as well as their historical afterlives.

“Dead Presidents” is simply crammed full of facts that even the most dedicated history buffs might not know, for instance that Woodrow Wilson is the only president to be buried in the nation’s capital. Many people know that William Henry Harrison died after giving “a long, dull inaugural speech in a snowstorm without a hat or a coat on, and succumbed to pneumonia a month later as a result,” which leads Mr. Carlson with uncharacteristic harshness to dub him “a fool.” But how many people would know before picking up this book that when “Benjamin Harrison, William Henry’s grandson, took his oath of office in 1893 on a cold and rainy day, mindful of Grandpa’s fate, he wore long underwear made of chamois leather to keep dry.”

No fool, he, then, but posterity does not remember his one term much more kindly than Grandpa’s one month in office, which at least got him a place in history books as the first president to die in office. I can never think of the grandson without chuckling at this wicked double-dactyl:

Higgledy piggledy

 Benjamin Harrison

 Twenty-third president

 Was, and as such,

 

Served between Clevelands and

Save for this trivial

Idiosyncrasy,

Didn’t do much.”

Of course, that’s the point: Merely having been president makes you important and thus interesting — one way or another.

In recent times, it is customary for presidents to plan their own funerals, sometimes while still in the White House. “Ronald Reagan, as befitting a onetime movie actor, thought of his services in cinematic terms” and specified dusk for his “closing scene.” President Ford’s funeral plan, which supposedly “played down the pomp and ritual,” turns out to have been pretty elaborate after all, with lots of individual touches and references. But “Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, turned all of it down” — the state funeral, the cathedral, the Capitol, the caisson and Washington, D.C. Even his tombstone is understated — a black stone, probably the smallest marker of any president, saying simply “Richard Nixon, 1913-1994. ‘The greatest honor history can bestow is that of peacemaker.’ No obelisk, no list of accomplishments, no presidential seal.” With the dry humor which makes this book such fun at times, Mr. Carlson informs us “Bill Clinton was an exception, and opted not to file a plan as he left the White House. Why? ‘He’s an optimist,’ said a spokesperson.” Hubristic is the word I’d use rather than optimistic, reminiscent of Goethe who is said to have believed that his greatness was such that he would be the first person not to die. So if there was a president who thought he wouldn’t either .

There is no presidential demise as affecting in all sorts of ways than that of James A. Garfield, who would have recovered from Charles Guiteau’s bullet, which was harmlessly lodged deep in his body, had the doctors — and one in particular — just left him alone. Instead, their endless probing with unwashed instruments and general disregard for antisepsis not only subjected him to unimaginable torture but actually allowed Guiteau to claim, albeit unsuccessfully, that he had shot the president but that the doctors had killed him. The story as told here makes one rage and weep with frustration not only at the human tragedy but at being deprived of someone with the potential to be a great president.

When Abraham Lincoln, the first American president felled by an assassin, drew his last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is quoted as pronouncing at his deathbed: “Now he belongs to the ages.” That some dispute the accuracy of this matters little, for it has entered our culture as a fitting epitaph for the man considered by many the greatest of all our leaders. Given Mr. Carlson’s special affinity for the men who have held the highest elective office in our republic, it is not surprising that his text is informed by a sense that for him, in their different ways, all of them belong to the ages. The achievement of his book is to make us feel it, too.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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