NHPR Host Brady Carlson

NHPR host Brady Carlson publishes a whirlwind gravesite tour of deceased US presidents

Here’s a little-known fact about NHPR reporter and “Weekend Edition” host Brady Carlson, who loves to sprinkle his broadcasts with offbeat trivia: During his honeymoon in 2000, he and his bride Sonya visited Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois and James Polk’s grave in Tennessee. “Pretty romantic, huh?” Carlson jokes. The radio personality’s habit of braking for deceased presidents eventually evolved into an irreverent blog and then a book deal. “Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders” [W.W. Norton & Company] hits the shelves on February 1, chronicling two years of Carlson road trips to cemeteries, presidential libraries, forgotten monuments and assassination sites. Humorist A.J. Jacobs calls it “the funniest and most entertaining book about death you’ll read this year.”

Presidents are the most famous people in the world. What’s left to write about? Usually, an author writes about a person’s life. That life ends, so the book ends. There’s a whole other story that begins when a president dies. I realized that the life ends, but the story doesn’t. It keeps going.

Nobody’s ever written about this before? Nobody’s done a comprehensive look before. In a very literal sense, I look at what happens to their bodies — because there are a lot of things that happened to their bodies — but also figuratively, what happens to their reputations and their legacies.

Any surprises? James Buchanan is widely regarded as the worst president ever, maybe because the country fell apart while he was president. But yet, there was a James Buchanan memorial in Washington, DC, before there was a Jefferson Memorial or any monument other than Washington Monument. It’s because his niece paid for one. She had been a prominent philanthropist and wanted him to be remembered well. So Herbert Hoover, who many considered at the time to be the worst president ever, had to dedicate a monument to the other worst president ever.

Would you consider these presidential burial sites to be tourist attractions? Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln is buried, is the second most visited cemetery in the country. In Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, there are people who sell Kennedy souvenirs there every day. In one of the museum gift shops, they were selling a toy car of the car he was riding in when he was shot.

Does New Hampshire’s native son, Franklin Pierce, get any play in your book? I visited his tomb and the Pierce Manse in Concord and the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough a few times. What’s interesting is that the statue of Franklin Pierce outside the Statehouse didn’t get put up until around World War I — he had been dead almost half a century by the time they honored him. There were previous attempts to put up a statue of him, but because he had been on the wrong side of the Civil War, people didn’t look very fondly on him or his presidency.

What do you hope readers take home from your book? I tried to take these different experiences that dead presidents have had and find something meaningful about what it says about us. Most of the presidents tried to bolster their legacies and ensure that they are remembered well, but they aren’t the ones doing the remembering. We are the ones who visit them or don’t visit them.

Categories: Q&A