One of my very favorite reads so far in 2016 was Brady Carlson's Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders, released by W. W. Norton & Company on February 1. It has all of my favorite elements: engaging narrative style, oodles of presidential trivia, and a touch of lighthearted humor. Plus, a passing mention of ShowBiz Pizza Place which I have literally not thought of for 30 years; those animatronic animals singing golden oldies--anyone else remember that?
Sorry about the digression, but it just goes to show you, you never know what you'll find in a book about history. I think that's what makes history so engaging and so worth both holding onto and sharing with others. I think Brady feels the same way, and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.
Recently I interviewed Brady about his book, presidential history, and what's next for him. I think you'll enjoy his insights.
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We have to start off with a generic question that I’d ask pretty much everyone I meet if I could: What do you like to read about? What are your favorite books?
I really want to read the new one from Annette Gordon Reed, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, about Thomas Jefferson. Which is probably a surprise to no one at all!
I have sentimental favorites that hooked me as a kid on the stories of presidents, both dead and alive. I read and re-read a book called Mr. President by George Sullivan, which was a fun and informative guide to the whole set (it’s still updated and printed today), and a book called The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop introduced me to the weird world behind the assassination. I read it until it fell apart.
There are lots of great books about presidents for readers of all ages—Robert Remini’s biography of Andrew Jackson is fantastic, and Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic has rightly won praise from all corners for reintroducing us to James A. Garfield.
I’ve always found the presidents interesting and had long hoped to visit all their graves just for fun. In 2012, while I was covering the presidential primary for my day job, I decided to get serious about the idea and started planning out how I might do the trips, how much it would cost, and those kinds of things. The more I looked at the sites and the stories behind them, I realized there was a bigger theme, about how and why we build these sites and monuments in the ways we do.
At first I figured I would just write about the trips for my website, but by chance I ended up hearing from a literary agent, who connected me with W.W. Norton, and what was a vague idea four years ago is a book today!
What fascinates you about presidential history?
I think what caught my interest as a kid was how important they were—after all, it’s The Most Important Job In The World—but today I think I’m fascinated by the unique place they hold in culture. Yes, presidents are powerful, but we also expect them to go on late night talk shows and tell jokes, or host concerts at the White House, or console families after tragedies. We pore over the trivia of their lives and careers, and put them on bobbleheads and t-shirts...and in a time where we don’t have a lot of things in common as a society, we all have that same list of presidents.
Which president or president’s history do you find most interesting?
What was your favorite presidential gravesite visited?
My personal favorite is Calvin Coolidge’s in Vermont—it’s a rural cemetery in the midst of these gorgeous New England mountains, just a beautiful spot. And the nearby state historic site has a working cheese shop founded in part by Coolidge’s dad. Great cheese, great views.
And now for some questions about history in general. We talk a lot about a president’s “legacy.” What do you think makes a successful president and determines a strong legacy?
A combination of genuine success, good timing, good luck and/or good marketing. The journalist/politician Clare Boothe Luce once noted, correctly, that over time Americans boil down each president into one sentence. Some presidents’ sentences are simply that they were president—they’re barely remembered at all. Others are remembered for a piece of trivia or a milestone—that they died in an unusual way, or were the first or last president to do or not do something. A lucky few are remembered for what they did or what they changed. Some work very hard to make sure they’re seen well by history; others seem to care very little about their place in history books. In short, it varies, but there’s always a process at work to create those sentences by which we remember them. And that’s one of my favorite questions to ask: how did each president end up being remembered in his particular way?
How do we get young people interested in history?
We’ve seen just in the last few years how even the dead presidents have come up in national politics, like when President Obama announced Mount McKinley would finally be renamed Denali. If we can teach kids to ask that next question—why was a mountain in Alaska ever named for McKinley? who never set foot there?—maybe you start to uncover an interesting and revealing story.
I’m convinced anyone who’s interested in people will be interested in history, because that’s really what history is about—us.
What’s next? Have you given any more thought to my unsubtle suggestion of a follow-up book? You know, a Dead First Ladies?
The top two suggestions I’ve had for a next book have been dead vice presidents and dead first ladies! It looks like Kate Andersen Brower, who wrote The Residence, may have beaten me to the punch on first ladies. But I have a few ideas that are just as vague now as the one that turned into this book was four years ago. Who knows where one of them might lead?
Thanks, Brady, for the book and the interview. Also, for the reading recommendations! I hope you'll come back when your next book comes out.