Literature

mourning the president


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How The Nation Pays Respects To Fallen Leaders

The White House In Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents in Office Martin S. Nowak
Softcover. 258 pp.
2010. McFarland & Company.

The history of our Presidents is more than just the study of the 43 individuals who held the office. There are so many moving parts with the Presidency itself, and learning about those who have led the country also tells us a lot about ourselves. I've been obsessed with Presidential History since I was a second-grader, so I'm always looking for new ways to supplement what I already know about the Chief Executives. That's why I was so excited to read Martin S. Nowak's The White House In Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents in Office (2010, McFarland & Company).

I'm kind of an odd person. Not only am I obsessed with Presidential History (and, really, all history), but I've always also been interested in thanatography -- stories or books that describe how people die. That might sound morbid or macabre, but there's something really interesting about a person's final moments and how it completes the story of someone's life. When I was younger, I remember reading books like Malcolm Forbes's They Went That-A-Way and Charles Panati's Panati's Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything. More recently, I've been fascinated by Tod Benoit's book Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die? and websites such as Find-a-Death and the Political Graveyard.

Now, I'm not sure what that means about me, but I do know that Martin S. Nowak's The White House In Mourning combines my interest in Presidential History and my fascination with thanatography. Nowak has focused on the Presidents who have died in office and described how they died, what happened with their bodies and funerals, how how their deaths affected the nation, and how they are remembered today. Nowak is a longtime enthusiast of Presidential History, and he spent years researching The White House In Mourning. Nowak's research pays off as the book is a well-written, complete history of the Presidents who have died in office.

Since George Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789, our nation has seen eight of our leaders die during their terms. Four Presidents -- William Henry Harrison in 1841, Zachary Taylor in 1850, Warren G. Harding in 1923, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 -- died of natural causes. Four Presidents -- Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963 -- were assassinated. While Americans of 2011 haven't seen a President die in office for nearly a half-century, the death of an incumbent President was once a surprisingly common occurrence. An example that Nowak demonstrated in The White House In Mourning is that an American born in 1830 who lived to be 93 would have been fully aware of the deaths of six incumbent Presidents.

The White House In Mourning shows that better medical care is one reason for the Presidential mortality rate becoming lower through the years. With the advances in technology and understanding that doctors have today, it's likely that Harrison and Taylor would have survived the illnesses that killed them and almost certain that Garfield and McKinley would have recovered from the gunshot wounds that eventually claimed their lives. Ronald Reagan was significantly older than both Garfield and McKinley when he was shot and the bullet lodged in a much more dangerous location, but the advantages of technological advancements saved his life while the earlier Presidents died. Advances -- and the actual establishment -- of Presidential security protects our leaders far more than they were protected in the past. Three of our four assassinated Presidents either had no regular security or very lax security at the time of their murders.

One really interesting aspect of The White House In Mourning is the description of the funerals of the fallen Presidents. When President Harrison died in 1841, an American President had never died in office and the United States had no real blueprint for an America state funeral. With Harrison's death, many precedents and traditions were established for the funeral, as well as the path of succession taken by the Vice President when he assumes the office upon the death, disability, resignation, or removal from office of the President. Nowak spends a chapter on each of the Presidents who died in office, and as he goes through the years, we see that many of the funeral traditions which began with Harrison in 1841 and were widespread after Lincoln's 1865 assassination are continued today. Each instance, of course, includes personal touches and requests, but an observer who witnessed Lincoln's funeral and JFK's funeral would have noticed many similarities. Anyone who recalls watching Ronald Reagan's 2004 funeral or Gerald Ford's funeral over the New Year's holiday of 2007 would also recognize the pageantry described in Nowak's book.

This book is one of those books that I really appreciate -- a study of a certain aspect of Presidential History which helps illuminate not only the Presidents as human beings, but Americans as a whole. While it's a must-read for serious enthusiasts of Presidential or American History, it's also very interesting for casual fans of history and features fascinating facts, vivid descriptions, and historic photographs that add to the picture painted by Nowak.

The White House In Mourning: Deaths and Funerals of Presidents In Office by Martin S. Nowak is available now at Amazon, or directly from McFarland & Company's website or order line (800.253.2187).

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:40 PM EDT | More details

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