The White House in Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents in Office. By Martin S. Nowak. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2010. 247 pp.
Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief By Willard M. Oliver and Nancy E. Marion. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. 235 pp.
As the most visible face of American politics, presidents have always served as celebrities, as persons of public character whose lives symbolize the vitality of American political culture. Consequently, presidents' deaths, particularly those resulting from assassination, have the power to shift political culture. The recent assassination attempt on Representative Gabrielle Giffords is the latest reminder that all politicians risk their lives in service to local, state, and national politics. But none risk more than the president since, as the symbol of the American polity, he draws the most public attention. Martin Nowak's The White House in Mourning and Willard Oliver and Nancy Marion's Killing the President examine presidential deaths within the contexts of celebrity and political culture.
The White House in Mourning details the deaths and subsequent mourning and funeral rituals for each president who died in office: four of whom died of illness and four of whom were assassinated. Nowak dedicates a chapter to each man, providing a biography (including health history) and then exploring the cause of death, whether illness or murder. If assassination was the cause of death, Nowak includes a brief biography of the assassin. Nowak also describes the state funerals, elaborating on the expectations and plans for each, and the roles of the public and the presidents' families.
Nowak's introductory chapter nicely overviews the eight deaths, and it occasionally makes solid points about the relationship of presidential death to American life. When John Tyler assumed the presidency upon William Henry Harrison's death in 1841, he established the legacy of permanent vice presidential succession. Release of James Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 indicate that the framers had intended the vice president to assume the presidential office temporarily until a special election replaced the president. The consequences have been significant. Tyler betrayed the Whig Party under whose banner he had won the vice presidency, exacerbating the emerging tensions between North and South. If Andrew Johnson had succeeded...