5 great books about obscure presidents

The lives of our worst presidents make surprisingly good reading.

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    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.

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?

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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)

He's best remembered today for the Teapot Dome scandal and his White House canoodling with a woman who was not his wife.

But Warren Harding's philandering had begun years before his brief stint as president. In fact, the man who looked like a senator straight from central casting had a long and tumultuous affair with a friend of this wife (who was both formidable and scandal-plagued herself.)

The mistress turned out to have troublesome sympathies toward Germany. And that was the least of it.

The president's love letters remain, and they reveal the inner life of a man of stunning – and misdirected – passion. If only he'd devoted that same energy to effectively running the country.

4. "Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy" by David O. Stewart (2009)

Andrew Johnson's brief term as vice president of the US began poorly. Very poorly.

He had too much "medicinal" liquor before his inauguration and ended up giving a gloriously addled speech, including the immortal sentence, "What's the name of the secretary of the Navy?"

Within weeks, the humorless and stubborn Johnson was president. To put it mildly, he was not the ideal man to extend the legacy of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, and it didn't take long for a severely divided Congress to decide he needed to get the heave-ho.

The suspenseful "Impeached" brims with fascinating characters, although profiles in courage – or honor – are hard to find.

5. "James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series," by Jean H. Baker (2004)

We've heard a lot over the last few years about the absolute worst president in the history of the US. Some people say it's the last one, and others say it's the man in the White House right now.

This brief history proves that they're all wrong. No other president was as downright terrible as James Buchanan, who goes down in history for his personal life (he was the only presidential bachelor hint hint nudge nudge) and his utter and complete failure to prevent the Civil War.

He did everything wrong, foolishly sticking to his guns when compromise could have headed off the biggest and bloodiest disaster in the nation's history.

Never mind those countless books about the secrets of leadership. Here you'll find the secrets of failure, and they're just as important to understand.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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