Friday, February 12, 2016

Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders


Rating: 4 Stars


I love these kinds of books - which might be a strange thing to say about a book that is primarily about the author's trek around the country to take in the many sites, memorials, and monuments dedicated to the men who have been president. But this is a great combination of history, travel, and witty quips - all things I enjoy. Despite the risk of being called kind of morbid, this was a fun jaunt through the afterlives of these men and a good look at how we remember our great, and not so great, leaders.

I have recently begun to learn more about presidents who are not named Washington or Lincoln. I admit my knowledge of many presidents is scant at best, as my interest in history typically lies across the ocean on those lovely little islands that make up the UK and Ireland. But here I was, able to repeatedly have my interest piqued, not only because of the sometimes strange stories about the presidents who had to be buried multiple times due to attempted body-napping (Hey Lincoln), but because I realized just how little I knew about the likes of Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison, and Chester A. Arthur (and that's just how he likes it!)

The book starts as it should - with a good look at Washington. You really can't help but feel sorry for him even 200+ years after his death. He first served as a general and didn't really want to be president the first time around. THEN, not only does he serve one term, but he is all but begged to serve a second. It's really as though the belief was that the country would have fallen apart without him. Given the nasty campaigns of those who followed, that may very well have been true. But, even after his death, Washington could not be left in peace. He said he did not want to be looked at or held up as greater than anyone else, yet even then the country just could not let him go.

A curiosity I found was the fact that President Garfield's assassination is the only one not marked by some kind of memorial. I mean, you say "Ford's Theatre" and EVERYONE knows what you are talking about. Granted, Garfield is less well-known, but it seems almost disrespectful that someone elected to the highest office in the land would not have a memorial, even a marking on the floor, to commemorate the event. I did a little more research into this topic and found some interesting information in a historical aspect, but it still seems odd to me that not only would President (Teddy) Roosevelt have the train station demolished without the permission of Congress, but would do nothing to at least mark the spot in some way.

After a while, in reading about some of these stories, I felt pity for many of these men more than anything else. While I am still learning more about the political parties and ideologies of them as politicians, they were still people. On one hand you have William Henry Harrison, who some critics were incredibly harsh on in life and in death. He took so much grief from his opponents and wanted to show them that he could do the job he had been elected to do, and it ended up costing him his life a month into the presidency. That alone gave his critics even more ammunition that he was never up to snuff. On the other you have President Taft, who was a target because of his weight. While yes, he was easily the heaviest president to hold office, the things he accomplished still seem to be overlooked, as he is remembered only as 'the fat one'.

I appreciate that as Carlson regales us with these tales of the departed, he remains respectful and thoughtful in his explorations of their lives after death. He is not making jokes at the expense of the former presidents, he makes intelligent observations in funny ways and makes the histories interesting (though, to be fair, I always think history is interesting. I mean that this is the kind of book that would interest even those who find history on the dull side). I'd also like to thank him for continuing to keep my interest in Nixon, as a recent book about the White House did as well. Previously Nixon had been nothing more than a disgraced president who seemed weasel-like and slippery and a guy who resigned to avoid punishment. But more and more I am intrigued by him and look forward to discovering more of who he was through further reading.

Overall, this exactly the kind of weird US tour I would go on myself, and will eventually drag my daughter along on - though I hope she will WANT to go, too - and I am glad to have this volume as a starting point for our own trek to the tombs and monuments and grave sites of the former presidents. Really great read, a lot of fun, highly recommended.

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