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5 great books about obscure presidents

The lives of our worst presidents make surprisingly good reading.

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

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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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