What eight presidents who weren’t elected can teach us about leadership
CEOs who find time in their busy schedules to write a book usually opt for a memoir or a business how-to that relives their own successes.
Not Jared Cohen.
The founder and chief executive of Jigsaw, a unit of Google parent Alphabet that’s been described as a tech incubator designed to address the “unintended consequences of digital communication” — cyberattacks on news organizations, online harassment, stolen passwords from activists — Cohen is a polymath who was a Rhodes Scholar, served as a State Department policy wonk under Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, and has three other books to his name.
His newest book, “Accidental Presidents,” has been in the works since 2014 but is the culmination of a childhood fascination with the men who ascended to the job after the death of their predecessors. He is careful to note he started writing the book before Trump even announced he was running but found himself writing it at a time when “Americans were really captivated by politics, history — what makes a good leader, what makes a bad leader.” We spoke with Cohen about the risks of how this country thinks about the vice presidency, what lessons it has had for his own job and why he collects presidential memorabilia — including locks of hair from dead presidents. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you find time to write such a heavily researched book?
I’ve thought about my career as a portfolio of curiosities. I’m very long on foreign policy; I’m very long on tech; I’m very long on business. But I’ve always had this lingering curiosity and passion about the presidents, and in particular these abrupt and unexpected transitions that thrust somebody into power that was never supposed to be there.
I found an interesting correlation between my day job and this. I’m an insomniac. I work in an industry that’s so focused on the future and innovation, and I could either meditate to keep myself sane or I could focus on my form of meditation — digging into chapters of history that I love. By spending time writing this book, it had the ripple effect of also giving me a surge in my day job. I found that going back and forth between writing about the past and working on the future — I loved the contrast.
Tell me about how you got interested in the topic.
My parents bought me a children’s book when I was 8 years old called “The Buck Stops Here.” Their goal was to turn me into a precocious kid, but instead they had to have eight conversations about pretty heavy topics like assassination and death.
The other thing — just as someone who’s running a unit within Alphabet — is that as I’m studying these figures in history, what I’m realizing is they’re confronting a lot of the same challenges you read about in Harvard Business Review. They’re trying to balance strategy and vision. They’re trying to figure out what to do about unexpected crises. They’re trying to make sure they have the right people around them.
What biographies did you read in preparing for this book that you think are also good books about leadership?
David McCullough’s book on Truman answers the question of how someone who’s so ill-prepared for one of the most seminal moments in history can end up achieving such extraordinary success when on paper they shouldn’t have. The takeaway from McCullough’s book is that it’s a two-to-tango dynamic. The leader has to have the confidence and the decisiveness to make uncomfortable decisions, but at the end of the day they’re also at the mercy of the people around them.
Others I loved were the Edmund Morris biographies of Teddy Roosevelt. He was such an outsize personality and colorful character. When you read about him, you’re really reading about one of the most complex people in history. He exhibits a lot of the attributes of a really Type A founder. If you ask the question, “Which historical president would have been more active on social media than Trump?” albeit with different content, I’m very confident in saying it would have been Teddy Roosevelt.
Which “accidental presidents” surprised you?
What’s more striking to me is how this happened eight times and every single one handled it almost completely differently. The only commonality is they all become obsessed with winning the presidency in their own right. Millard Fillmore takes the oath of office and sacks the entire Cabinet. John Tyler spends his first month fighting with Congress and with the Cabinet and insisting that he’s president. All the way through Lyndon Johnson, the notion that the vice president becomes president is based entirely on that precedent set by Tyler. It’s not formalized until after the 25th Amendment and JFK’s assassination. It’s a reminder of how powerful precedent is.
The other thing that’s striking to me — of all the accidental presidents — is not a single one of them was integrated into the administration. Imagine in a business, the successor being deliberately orphaned from the organization and not having any familiarity with how the business runs, what’s going on in the business, who does what. You have these men ascending to the highest office in land, at the height of debates on slavery, at the dawn of Reconstruction, during World War II when the war is still in its most active moment, at the height of the Cold War. More than half of the “accidental presidents” ascended at seminal moments in our country’s history, and yet they had no idea what was going on.
What have you applied from the writing of this book to your day job?
What made some successful and others fail was almost entirely determined by the people they had around them, and by their relationships. The big takeaway for me has been that each time there’s a change in context, to make sure I’m getting advice from a committee of people, and to make sure I’m getting advice outside of my usual collection of advisers.
What do you think should change about the way we select vice presidents?
We’ve had eight presidents die in office and 19 almost die in office, and yet what’s interesting is, whether the vice president has been chosen by the party or the candidate, we still make the same mistake. We treat the successor as a marriage of political convenience to get a bump in the polls or to balance the ticket. We do at times end up with a vice president who is perfectly capable of leading the nation, but it seems to be more of a coincidence than the reason they were selected in the first place.
And so what do we do about it?
Especially in a race [like 2020] where you have 20-plus people running, they’re all interviewing for the job. We’re developing an impression for how they could perform. One thing the Democrats could do is say, “This time around, the people eligible for vice president have to have first been a candidate for president.” They’re only going to pull from people who’ve already interviewed for the job with the American people. I don’t think they will do that. But we’ve gone the longest we’ve gone without a president dying in office. We’re sort of at a point where we’ve forgotten that this could happen.
You say at the end of the book that you collect locks of presidential hair. Why?
I’m a very visual person. I love having my hand on the same document that George Washington had his hand on. It’s the closest you can get to feeling like you were right there with them. The hair thing started off because the autographs dealer I get a lot of my memorabilia from has the largest collection of historic hair in the world. It’s a very small ecosystem. And when I bought a George Washington-signed document from him, he threw in a lock of George Washington’s hair.
At first I thought it was kind of weird. And then I sort of decided I was kind of into it, and then I got John Adams’s, and wanted a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s and then Reagan and then William Henry Harrison. People who love history — sometimes we’re odd creatures, and we immerse ourselves in the past. My prized possession is a painting of Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff’s son. It was painted by Eisenhower in his second term.