If 24 has taught us anything, it's that the presidential succession can be the stuff of riveting, wildly implausible drama. Here are five presidential might-have-beens that would make for some fascinating alternate history stories.

My favorite obscure historical topic has always been the vice presidents. For some reason, I've always found the exploits of William Rufus de Vane King, Hannibal Hamlin, and Schuyler Colfax nothing short of fascinating. (Their admittedly fantastic names may have something to do with it). The Constitution charges the Veep with three duties…


1. Break tie votes in the Senate.
2. Protect the space-time continuum.
3. Be on standby in case something happens to the president.

Nine times in our nation's history, the vice president has been called upon to fulfill that third and most important duty, which is why Millard Fillmore and Chester Alan Arthur are still the butts of jokes while George Dallas and Daniel Tompkins are people you probably first heard of about two seconds ago. But there have been plenty of other times when presidents might have had to step aside, be it by death, resignation, or impeachment, and it's intriguing to speculate on what might have happened.

Just ask Philip K. Dick, whose Nazi-victory story in The Man in the High Castle hinges on the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the subsequent, ineffective presidency of John Nance Garner. So let's put our alternate historians' hats on and consider five other possible moments in presidential succession that would make for great stories.

The President: John Tyler
The Date: February 28, 1844
The Event: A cannon malfunction on the USS Princeton kills President Tyler's Secretary of State, Secretary of the Navy, and New Yorker David Gardiner, among others. Tyler not only survived the crash, but he actually ended up marrying Gardiner's daughter Julia, whom he comforted in the aftermath of the explosion. In all possible senses of the term, Tyler got lucky. But…what if he hadn't?
The Successor: President of the Senate pro tempore Willie Mangum of North Carolina

Why the alternate history novel should be written now:

Tyler had no vice president, having succeeded William Henry Harrison after the old general died a month into his term. Known as "His Accidency", Tyler had waged a three-year war with pretty much everybody in Washington for the right to be the actual, full-blooded president, not just an acting president. This ultimately led to Tyler's entire cabinet resigning and his expulsion from the Whig party. After all that, what sort of authority could Mangum have possibly had, especially when the constitution made it quite clear he would only have been the acting president for certain. With over a year before a new president could be sworn in, would Washington have ground completely to a standstill? Can you even imagine? (Don't answer that.)


OK, fine, I'll admit it. Pretty much all political history between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln is deathly boring. But how about…

The President: Andrew Johnson
The Date: May 16, 1868
The Event: Another former Vice President who had become ostracized from his supposed party, the technically Republican, but actually Democratic, Johnson spent three years sparring with the Republican congress as to just how the South should be rebuilt in the aftermath of the Civil War. Hoping to oust him from office, congressional Republicans impeached the president on what was essentially a technicality. His conviction failed by a single vote, the result of seven Republican senators breaking party lines. But…what if they hadn't?
The Successor: President of the Senate pro tempore Benjamin Wade of Ohio

Why the alternate history novel should be written now:

One of the leaders of the so-called "radical" Republicans, Wade so alienated moderates that the seven dissenting Republican senators didn't as much vote for Johnson as they did against Wade. Considering the also radical (but ethically challenged) Grant administration came into power only ten months later, it's hard to know what President Wade could really have done all that differently policy-wise.

Still, this would have basically destroyed the power of the presidency, asserting Congress as the real head of government and the president as an obedient servant who served at its pleasure and who could be removed based on little more than personal dislike.

In any event, the U.S. could have morphed into a de facto parliamentary democracy, and considering how gloriously, deliriously corrupt Congress was in the Gilded Age without wielding absolute power, their exploits in such a hypothetical world would be the stuff of legend. Or at least a pretty decent first novel.

The President: Woodrow Wilson
The Date: October 2, 1919
The Event: President Wilson suffered a massive stroke. First Lady Edith Wilson and a team of doctors immediately moved to place the incapacitated president in seclusion. For much of the rest of his term, the First Lady essentially ran the government, deciding which matters were important enough to bring to the attention of the partially blind and paralyzed president. Frankly, it's a wonder the stroke didn't kill him outright. But…what if it had?
The Successor: Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

Why the alternate history novel should be written now:

Deeply unpopular for an almost endless number of reasons – his support of the League of Nations, an economic recession, general weariness with the war and his reforms, his totalitarian domestic policies during the Great War, and there's always his massive racism – Wilson was leading the Democrats to certain defeat in the 1920 election. The only possible chance for the Democrats was if the current administration completely reversed itself overnight.


That just might have happened if Thomas Marshall had become president. A smart but unassuming Indiana politician with a sharp sense of humor, Marshall had been utterly ignored by Wilson and completely shut out of the government. It's just possible Marshall could have built on the likely goodwill his succession would have created, and moderated the Democrats enough for them to keep control in 1920.

And, assuming the Democrats might have regulated Wall Street in the twenties more heavily than the Republicans did – in other words, if they'd regulated it at all – the Great Depression might just have been a mild recession. (Or it could have been a thousand times worse. I don't claim to be an economist.) Of course, Europe probably still would have descended into fascism and economic despair. And that still leaves the decaying American agricultural and industrial sectors that helped exacerbate the Depression in the first place. Even so...it's worth exploring.

The President: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The Date: November 28, 1943
The Event: I'm choosing from a whole bunch of possibilities here, as our only four-term president spent the last couple of years of his presidency slowly wasting away under the tremendous pressure of his office, not to mention his own longstanding medical problems. On this particular occasion, he suffered an "acute digestive attack" while meeting with Stalin and Churchill at the Tehran Conference. Needless to say, he didn't die (yet). But…what if he did – somewhat earlier?
The Successor: Vice President Henry Wallace

Why the alternate history novel should be written now:

There's a reason why it was Harry S Truman and not Henry Wallace who succeeded FDR when he finally did pass away. Wallace had been dropped from the 1944 presidential ticket because he was, to put it mildly, nutty as a fruitcake. A New Age spiritualist, he dabbled in most major religions and a few of the minor ones. His spiritual counselor, Nicholas Roerich, was the most eccentric Russian political advisor this side of Rasputin (in his defense, he was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times).


Wallace sent Roerich on a fact-finding mission to Asia that may or may not have involved searching for Jesus's lost paintings that were hidden in Tibet (no, it doesn't really make any more sense when fully explained). This expedition proved so embarrassing to the U.S. government that Wallace was forced to fire Roerich, and when he wrote his memoir he tried to hide any connection between Roerich and himself.

Wallace faced criticisms of being a communist sympathizer for most of his political career, and, whatever the exact truth may have been, it's hard to dispute that he defended Stalin far too staunchly for his own good. He might also have been a bit of a pacifist, which could have made being the wartime commander-in-chief a little tricky. So now… imagine Wallace and Roerich running World War II. I can practically smell the Sidewise Award.

The President: Richard Nixon
The Date: October 20, 1973
The Event: Desperate to stop the investigations into Watergate, President Nixon tried to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which required the Attorney General to actually do the firing. Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to do so and subsequently resigned, as did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork was the last person in the chain of command who could fire Cox, which he ultimately did. Nixon's attempt to muscle the Justice Department became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, and if Bork had resigned as well, the subsequent outrage might well have forced Nixon's resignation right then and there. And…what if it had?
The Successor: Speaker of the House Carl Albert of Oklahoma

Why the alternate history novel should be written now:

Since Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in the wake of his own corruption charges, and Gerald Ford's appointment was still a couple months away, the 22nd Amendment dictated the Speaker of the House would become the acting president. Albert, a Democrat, had pledged that he would appoint a Republican as Vice President and then resign. Simple enough, really, except for one small problem – his succession would have, in all probability, created a constitutional crisis, which was just what the country needed after the worst political scandal in its history.


It all comes down to a bunch of holes legal scholars keep finding in presidential succession laws. For one thing, it's still an open question whether members of the legislative branch, such as the Speaker of the House, are technically eligible to become President. Neither of Gerald Ford's Chiefs of Staff – a couple of political nobodies called Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney – felt the presidency could pass outside of the executive branch, and it's quite possible others in the Nixon administration agreed. This could have set up a leadership challenge from Treasury Secretary William Simon, who would have been the next member of the Executive Branch in line to the presidency.

Even if Albert had maintained power, one has to wonder whether the Democratic Senate would have allowed him to appoint a Republican that would have any chance of, say, winning the 1976 election. (Maybe, for comedy's sake, this could have at last opened the door for perennial candidate and longtime laughingstock Harold Stassen.) Oh, and there's also the thorny issue of whether Albert would have pardoned Nixon like Ford did, thus avoiding the national embarrassment and global spectacle of a former president being put on trial.

You take all that succession drama, crazed infighting, and political maneuvering, and make Carl Albert, the 5'4" Oklahoman known as the "Little Giant from Little Dixie", your unassuming hero, and you've got "bestseller" written all over it. Actually, I should probably copyright this now, while I still have half a chance...