“When I told people I had a new book, they said, “Is it about cyber wars or foreign policy?” says Jared Cohen. It’s a natural assumption—Cohen, founder and CEO of Jigsaw (a technology incubator created by Google), worked in the office of Condoleeza Rice as one of the youngest foreign-policy planners in American history; served as chief adviser to Google’s Eric Schmidt; and is a New York Times bestselling author, having written two books on the intersection of technology and foreign policy.
His new book, as it turns out, is a little different. “It’s about dead presidents,” Cohen laughed at WeWork 500 7th Ave in New York. Cohen, along with MSNBC political analyst Elise Jordan, was there to discuss Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, a book he’s been waiting to write his whole life. As a child, Cohen was captivated by American history, and as an adult, his focus narrowed to the eight vice presidents who ascended to the top spot after assassinations and illnesses claimed the men elected to the job.
Far from being fated, according to Cohen, the rise of men like John Tyler (vice president to William Henry Harrison), Theodore Roosevelt (who became president after the assassination of William McKinley), and Harry Truman (successor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt) could have been cataclysmic for the nation, and it’s clear not all of the accidental presidents on Cohen’s list were cut out for the job. There was Andrew Johnson, whose biggest claim to fame as Abraham Lincoln’s second-in-command was getting so drunk at Lincoln’s second inaugural that, says Cohen, “he slobbered all over the ceremonial Bible,” or Chester A. Arthur, who spent more time redecorating the White House than he did governing.
Others, though, Cohen holds up as examples of leaders who triumphed over the odds and more than rose to meet the demands of their new positions. “In 82 days as vice president,” he says of Harry Truman, “he only meets FDR twice. Doesn’t get a single intelligence briefing, doesn’t meet a single world leader, isn’t briefed on the new patent project. He was an awestruck provincial politician from Missouri.” And yet with the help of key advisers who understood the importance of Truman’s success, he effectively ended World War II.
While the stakes of modern-day business might not be quite as high, Cohen does see a correlation between presidents like Harry Truman and contemporary CEOs. “The ones that succeeded were the ones who had a combination of two things happen. The advisers they inherited wanted them to be successful and worked with them to help make them successful. And two, they had the judgment to figure out where to listen to them and where not to listen to them.”
It’s this balance of strategy and vision that Cohen frames as universal. “In many respects, the story of accidental presidents, it’s like CEOs taking over for founders: finding that balance between leaving your own mark and continuing the legacy of your predecessor.”
It’s clear that for Cohen, what we can learn from the men who weren’t supposed to be president goes beyond shock at how many times we’ve come perilously close to political chaos, but that their stories offer a glimpse into what we might do if suddenly faced with daunting new responsibilities. “Every business leader should get a nice dose of history,” he says, “and I think biographies are good for the soul. If you can find time to go to the gym and meditate, you should find the time to read about Harry Truman.”
Photographs by Lori Gutman