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5 great books about obscure presidents

The lives of our worst presidents make surprisingly good reading.

By Randy Dotinga / August 19, 2010

Warren Harding is best remembered today for the Teapot Dome scandal and a passionate love affair.

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Oh the indignity of being an almost-forgotten chief executive of these United States.

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For a few years, you held the highest post in the land. And now your name is barely on anyone's tongue unless they're engaged in a round of history trivia.

Sure, there may be a Pierce County here or a McKinley Middle School there. But is your face on a coin? Or your name in the title of a best-selling book?

Sadly, no.

But it turns out that obscurity doesn't guarantee that the members of the Ex-Presidents Society are crashing bores. Some of them are pretty darned interesting. To prove it, here are five great books about presidents you've barely ever heard of.

1. "The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield," by Kenneth D. Ackerman (2003).

I've seen a photograph of President James Garfield that shows him with a huge grin as he dandles a young child on his knee. He looks like a man who could reveal pure delight in front of a camera at a time when that sort of thing was frowned upon (possibly because everyone had bad teeth).

Garfield didn't have much reason to be delighted during his brief term as president. He might have thought he barely belonged there in the first place, considering that he was the product of a compromise on the 36th ballot (36th!) of the Republican National Convention.

Garfield was only in office for four months before being shot by an angry office seeker; he suffered immensely for months, in part due to incredibly botched medical care.

"Dark Horse" expertly tracks the political players of the time and probes the warped mind of the assassin, a man who transformed himself from pest to killer.

2. "Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876," by Roy Morris Jr. (2004)

Say what you will about the disputed presidential election of 2000, but there's one thing to be thankful for: it didn't come close to provoking a civil war.

The nation wasn't so fortunate in 1876, when a close election nearly hurtled the still-divided nation into armed conflict. Hayes lost but still managed to win through an amazing amount of skullduggery.

After all the chaos, Hayes turned out to be decidedly undistinguished as a president. As for rival Tilden, the lively "Fraud of the Century" shows him to be a man of eternal faith in America. His gravestone bears this message: "I Still Trust in the People."

3. "The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War," by James David Robenalt (2009)

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