Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gail Collins provides a lively and entertaining biography of the shortest serving American president

Book 13: William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins

William Henry Harrison is the most recent entry in Times Books’ The American Presidents series.

It’s also one of final books in this uniformly superb series of brief biographies of American presidents.  Upcoming books on William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy complete the series up to (but not including) Bill Clinton.

William Henry Harrison is a highly readable book. Collins is a journalist, not a historian, so she knows how to tell a story, and Harrison’s story is an intriguing one.

He was president for only 31 days.  In his late sixties when elected, it is widely believed Harrison attempted to display his stamina by delivering a two-hour inaugural address on a cold and rainy day in Washington in early March.  A month later he was dead from the effects of pneumonia.

Vice President John Tyler became president and that’s a story in itself. A half dozen political leaders, including Daniel Webster, had declined the vice presidential nomination. “It was one of those moments when you can imagine an alternative path into the future closing itself off,” Collins writes.

Harrison became the first presidential candidate to actively campaign for the office. He took to the campaign trail, in part, to defuse rumors that he was too old and feeble for the job. 

Harrison was helped in to office by his overly inflated reputation as an heroic Indian fighter; principally at the Battle of Tippecanoe. (Hence the phrase, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” which most of us remember, but don’t necessarily connect to Harrison.) 

I am a long-standing fan of this series. Each biography runs less than 200 pages. This particular book is only 125 pages, but, frankly, how much needs to be written about Harrison? 125 pages seems about right.

Collins' William Henry Harrison is a lively and entertaining look at the shortest serving American president.

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