Jared Cohen, Jigsaw and author, Accidental Presidents

Jared Cohen, Jigsaw and author, Accidental Presidents

This State Department veteran is now CEO of Alphabet’s Jigsaw business, which works to make the world safer. He also just wrote a book about Vice Presidents who became President. Seeing connections is his job.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: Jared, come out here. Jared Cohen was last on the Techonomy stage eight years ago. We were trying to remember backstage what it was he talked about then, this was in Tucson. And he remembered that it was really post–Arab Spring and understanding what’s going to happen next? You were really thinking big thoughts then, I remember.
Jared Cohen: Well, I think then we were talking about how the big takeaway from the Arab Spring was that revolutions are easier to start but harder to finish.
Kirkpatrick: Oh. Good, good lesson. I guess that proved true, didn’t it? So now he—he subsequently wrote a book with Eric Schmidt, the title was—
Cohen: “The New Digital Age.”
Kirkpatrick: “The New Digital Age,” which was a very expansive look at how technology—it was really techonomic. It was Techonomics 101, really. How technology’s changing everything and a quite optimistic way of looking at it. Then he went inside Google. He’s now running something called Google Jigsaw, which is an incubator for ideas which we’ll talk about—ideas to really help solve some of the big problems. We’ll get to that in a minute. But he’s in the middle of all that written a book about vice presidents who became president called “Accidental Presidents,” which is a New York Times bestseller, a huge hit, and very readable. And it basically talks about the—how many? Eight?
Cohen: The eight times a vice president became president when their predecessor died.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. So why did you do that? And talk about it.
Cohen: So, it’s a fair question. Because when I told people I was working on a new book or had a new book coming out, the first assumption they made is, “Oh, is it a book about, you know, cyber war and technology?” And I would say, “No.” The second assumption they would make, “Well, is it a foreign policy book?” Because that’s part of my background.
Kirkpatrick: Oh, because he also worked with Condoleezza Rice and was sort of the digital guy in the State Department for a while.
Cohen: So I said, “No, it’s not a book about foreign policy.” So then they look at me kind of puzzled and they say, “What’s it about?” I said, “Well, it’s a book about eight dead presidents.” And they look even more puzzled.
Kirkpatrick: [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: Then they’re surprised when I say, “This is my life’s passion,” which is utterly confusing to them because my day job is running one of the Alphabet units. When I was eight years old, my parents bought me a children’s book called “The Buck Stops Here.” It was one of those great rhyming books, one president per page. And my parents wanted to turn me into a precocious child and they didn’t realize that as an eight year old, I would zero in on death and assassination and have lots of questions about it. And I still remember some of these rhymes, right? You know, “35 is young John F., another president shot to death.” Right?
Kirkpatrick: Whoa. Whoa.
Cohen: So you remember those things. You remember those things as a kid. And the line of questioning that follows is extraordinary. And my poor parents, they didn’t even know who William McKinley was, let alone having to explain to me why his head was keeled over. So this was a sort of life’s interest of mine. And I read books my entire life about the presidents who died and these men who were never supposed to be president who were thrust into the pinnacle of power. And so when my wife was pregnant with our now-five-year-old, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do before the baby came. And I was just—
Kirkpatrick: Because you worked at Google, you had a lot of time off.
Cohen: Yes, something like that.
Kirkpatrick: Keep going.
Cohen: And I was sort of annoying everybody because I was getting antsy and nervous and so forth, so I decided to put together this book proposal. And I said, “This is my life’s passion. I’m just going to do it.” And here we are five and a half years later and the book is called “Accidental Presidents.”
Kirkpatrick: So you’ve literally been reading about presidents who were assassinated your whole adult life.
Cohen: It gets even stranger than that, David.
Kirkpatrick: Oh.
Cohen: So I’ve been reading about presidents my entire life but because books are not enough to sort of scratch this itch, I also collect presidential memorabilia. And there’s the obvious things, you know, signed presidential documents and paintings done by presidents, but also locks of presidential hair, which is strange until you see it. And even when you see it, you’ll still think it’s strange, but you’ll become increasingly curious about it.
Kirkpatrick: How many of those do you have?
Cohen: I have George Washington, John Adams, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower. And before you ask me the question which I’m sure is on everybody’s mind in this room, “Do you have the current president?” I have a canned response for this, which is, “I do not collect hair of the living.”
Kirkpatrick: [LAUGHTER] Okay. Well, you could do some interesting DNA work with that if you ever wanted to, I suppose. Wow. Okay. Even in our prep call, we didn’t get to that.
Cohen: It’s late in the day, we have to keep people—
Kirkpatrick: I really—I mean, you said that this is your lifelong passion. I thought you meant history and the presidents generally. And it is the presidents generally, but specifically, presidents who were succeeded by vice presidents, the vice presidents who rose to power.
Cohen: Well, so it’s—so the simple way to think about this is you have eight times in history when somebody who was thrown onto the ticket—who was a marriage of political convenience to win a state or a piece a constituency—is thrown on as kind of an afterthought.
Kirkpatrick: Now wait a minute, is that the case in every single one of the eight instances?
Cohen: No vice president has ever been chosen solely for the idea that they would be ready to lead on day one. There is always an electoral value that they’re supposed to provide. And it’s incredibly reckless when you think about the fact that eight men who were never supposed to be president become president, some of the most seminal moments in American history, right? At the height of the debates around slavery, the height of the debate over the compromise of 1850, the dawn of Reconstruction, you know, World War II, the Cold War, and our history is drastically altered by the bullet of an assassin, by the absence of a heartbeat. And I think what I was fascinated by the fact is how fragile our history is.
And in addition to these eight abrupt transitions—because it’s a fascinating story of how—I mean, a vice president becoming president of somebody else’s administration, it does resemble a lot of the attributes of a CEO taking over for a founder. Right? It’s not their product, it’s not their vision. It’s somebody else’s people, it’s somebody else’s organization. They have all the burdens that come with that. So over time, it went from a sort of childhood interest in presidents and it evolved to a broader interest about how unpredictable our history is. And in addition to the eight that died in office, you also had 19 close calls. So you had 19 presidents who nearly died in office, most by assassination attempt.
Kirkpatrick: Well, the other thing amazed me in reading your book was how many of the vice presidents, before the president was killed, had virtually never even gotten to know—in some cases, had only met once or twice with the president that they succeeded.
Cohen: Well, the best story with this is, you know, we all sort of—
Kirkpatrick: I mean, Truman only met FDR twice in office? That’s crazy.
Cohen: Well, so of the eight accidental presidents, not a single one of them enjoyed a close relationship with their predecessor. In most cases, it was an enemy-like relationship. Not a single one of them was in the loop or integrated into the administration. In Truman’s case, Truman in 1944—the Democratic Party bosses, everyone knows that FDR is a dying man, which is why they can’t fathom the idea of Henry Wallace, the incumbent vice president, staying on the ticket because he’s seen as a Soviet sympathizer and far too liberal even for the Democratic Party bosses. So they basically, you know, manipulate to have Truman thrown on the ticket. And Truman is basically this provincial politician from Missouri. He’s kind of the embodiment of local machine politics. He’s not very worldly, he’s not very well-known, and he’s an afterthought. So in his 82 days as vice president, he only meets FDR twice, not a single intelligence briefing, doesn’t meet a single foreign leader, never steps foot in the map room where the war is being planned, isn’t briefed on the atomic bomb, literally has no idea what’s going on and is spending all of his time socializing.
So then 82 days later, April 12, 1945, FDR takes his last breath. Then you think about what Truman inherited, the Battle of Okinawa is raging, it’s one of the fiercest military conflicts in the history of the republic. He’s briefed 30 minutes later on the atomic bomb and has to figure out what to do with this—
Kirkpatrick: Which he hadn’t heard anything about.
Cohen: He hadn’t heard anything about it.
Kirkpatrick: He didn’t know anything about developing an atomic bomb.
Cohen: He has to contemplate the realities of potentially moving a million men from the European theatre to the Asian Pacific theatre. Hitler’s still running things out of a bunker in Germany. Stalin’s reneging on every one of his promises from Yalta. Churchill’s sort of crazy. And there’s a bureaucratic battle between the army and navy that’s threatening the entire war effort. Yet, in his first four months, Truman makes some of the most significant and most controversial decisions in the history of the republic. It sets the stage for the end of World War II, shapes the post-war order. And it’s this remarkable story of a man who, on paper, was a disastrous choice, a reckless choice, an irresponsible choice. And yet, because it worked out well, we don’t sort of think otherwise.
Kirkpatrick: Well, he did drop the bomb twice, which—I don’t know about that. But anyway, so—amazing. But so—
Amazing. Okay. One of the things that we agreed I would ask you, we’ll say, is how—and I want to know—is how did you find the time to do this because you really are the digital native par excellence, right? You’re not—
Cohen: I’ve never been called that before.
Kirkpatrick: You’re not a professional historian. You are in the thick of constructing a new digital society.
Cohen: So it’s interesting, the two most common questions I get asked are, “Why didn’t you include Nixon to Ford?” and, “How did you find time to write this?” And since you’re asking the latter, it’s interesting. People come to work all the time and they talk about their marathons they’re training for, their sort of newfound obsession with meditation, the Ironman they’re training for. And nobody asks them how they find time for it. So there’s no—what rule says that my meditative state can’t be achieved by getting a good dose of American history? And so, for me, at a time when, you know, during the day for the last almost nine years, I’ve spent all my time thinking about the future and innovation and so forth, it’s very easy to lose sight of how important the past is for informing what all this crazy stuff is that’s happening right now.
But the other way I think about this—and this is something I’ve come—it’s always been how I’ve lived my life, but it’s something I’ve come to define in this way more recently, which is, when people ask me what I do now, I don’t say I’m the founder and CEO of Jigsaw at Alphabet. I say, “I manage a portfolio of my curiosities. And I’m constantly diversifying and hedging that portfolio to make sure I never wake up in the morning curious about something without an avenue to explore it.” So I, one day—as I mentioned to you before—sort of woke up and said, “You know what? My position on dead American presidents is not big enough in my portfolio and I have this outsized curiosity and I’m going to be on paternity leave for a bit. But I have a little time before that happens, so maybe I can scrap together this proposal.”
But I will tell you the time that when into this—mostly on airplanes and in evenings and weekends and vacations—did more for my enthusiasm during the day than anything else because that contrast between, you know, the past at night and the future during the day, it kept me grounded in looking at all of the new things that were manifesting themselves on digital platforms. And instead of treating all these things as new, it made me ask the question, “What does this look like from history? What does this resemble from something that we’ve seen in another chapter?” And I found that contrast and that clash between past and future really exhilarating.
Kirkpatrick: So give some examples of what you figured out as a result of that.
Cohen: Well, I’ll give you one that I’m grappling with right now.
Kirkpatrick: Please.
Cohen: I haven’t sort of shared it yet, but it’s—so maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But, you know, whenever I go to conferences now, you hear people sort of make similarly declarative statements like, “What are we going to do about AI?” You know, “What are we going to do about this US-China dynamic?” And the declarations and the concerns are too broad to be prescriptive, but you conclude one thing, which is you conclude that people sense that there’s some kind of global conflagration happening right now. You see a lot of the symptoms and evidence that there’s something brewing on a global scale that if we don’t get right could have significant 100-plus year consequences. The difference between this moment and past moments is we don’t know exactly what caused it. We can’t pinpoint the exact date that it started. We don’t have a good sense of who the adversaries are. We’re not really able to define what this conflict is in any kind of precise way and yet we want to jump right to what do we do about it. So what I sort of think of this as, we’re almost like in the midst of this kind of like great ambiguous conflict. So my sort of amateur historian brain works in the following ways, which is, when was the last time the world experienced a kind of global conflagration where it was sort of ambiguous about what was happening and it was hard to define. So you immediately sort of transplant yourself to the pre-Westphalian era.
Kirkpatrick: You do.
Cohen: Yeah.
And you start—so I haven’t tested this hypothesis yet. All I can do is tell you I have a stack of books, you know, on my dining room table about the Hundred Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War.
Kirkpatrick: Which was when? When were those?
Cohen: The Hundred Years’ War was, like, in the 1300s. And the Thirty Years’ War was the war in the 1600s that ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia, which created the modern day system of sovereign states. So, the books are really long and really dense, so it’ll take me a while to test this hypothesis.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Well, I mean, I definitely agree with you that we’re in a—I mean, it feels unprecedented to those of us who have only been around for a few decades and aren’t professional historians.
Cohen: Amateur historians.
Kirkpatrick: You said amateur, but I don’t know. You’re pretty good at it. One of the things that has come up a lot on the stage today already is—well, we have this theme of collaboration for responsible growth. That’s kind of our rubric for this entire year in our company. But it’s come up a lot on the stage and there’s been a lot of concern about the moment we’re in as—I don’t know if you—did you see our magazine? This is the cover. Right? But it’s also this cover. This is what we’re trying to figure out. I mean, this is not just here, this is probably our next twenty years we’re going to be trying to figure this out. Which is it going to be? Is tech going to help us or hurt us? And you can find so many ways it’s doing both. But I know there have been a number of speakers today who’ve talked about the need for government and business to come together more methodically, especially around the complexity of these global problems. Does that have an analogue in the historical record? Or how do you think about it? I’m sure you think about it professionally at Google Jigsaw, for one thing.
Cohen: So the way I—first of all, in terms of, you know, is tech going to save us or is tech going to destroy us, I mean, I think it’s interesting. We’re so wed to these kind of binary declarations about tech. My background is in foreign policy before I got into tech, so I view everything through a geopolitical lens. So when Eric and I wrote our book, the book was about what happens when another five billion people connect to the internet. And what we sort of predicted or speculated about is that the—once you sort of achieve the access revolution, everybody was online, the digital world would sort of look like the geopolitical world. And I think that’s more or less what’s happened, right?
So if I look at the work that I do every single day at Jigsaw, we’re in the business of focusing on all the problems that are destabilizing the internet, disinformation problems, state-sponsored cyberattacks, the spread of extremism online, the trolling problem, organized harassment. But we’re specifically interested in when these things have a real political motivation. So a simple way to think about this is, we’re focused on the countries and the environments and the demographics that are tier one from a geopolitical perspective and typically tier four or tier five from a business perspective. And what we’re interested in is what countries and what demographics are being used as target practice to test the latest and greatest nefarious cyber activity. And if you spend time in those countries as we do—we send engineers out to the Donbass in eastern Ukraine to look at what tactics are being deployed as part of Ukraine’s military operations. We track down fake news editors in Macedonia, talk to 419 scammers in Nigeria, etcetera. When you do those things and you’re looking at the countries that are most active in terms of geopolitics, they serve as very useful crystal balls for forecasting what will mainstream on a one to two year horizon.
So what we try to do is we try to look at what are those environments where, you know, politically motivated actors will do it first and worst. So one way you could think about this in the context of elections here in the US is everybody’s concerned about the 2020 presidential election and what may or may not happen. I don’t believe that the way to anticipate this is to look back at 2016 or just look at the midterms, I think you have to look at who might meddle in the election and where they currently incentivize to try to achieve objectives. So Ukraine is a good sort of bellwether of things to come, but also the Balkans, also some of the things that we’re seeing in Southeast Asia. So that’s kind of how we operate.
So I guess my view is there’s such a focus on the public-private aspect of the conversation around regulation and how do we work more closely together and so forth. To me, the key thing is forecasting. If we can’t forecast where all of this stuff is going, which requires the right blend of subject matter expertise—oftentimes which government has—and technical expertise, which company has, then we’re constantly going to be reacting to this. So the sort of airport analogy that I use is, you know, the time to make us take our shoes off before we go through security would have been before Richard Reid tried to set his shoes on fire on the airplane.
Kirkpatrick: Right. So is that what Jigsaw was set up to do is to do that kind of sort of proactive forecasting and remediation? Is that—because I never quite understood exactly what Jigsaw was, to be honest.
Cohen: So we’re set up to do two things. So, again, the scope for us is to look at these problems that are destabilizing the internet. We have a mandate to look across the whole of the internet, not just Google platforms. Our R&D focuses on forecasting where all the challenges that we’re familiar with today, how they’re going to manifest on this one to two year horizon. But we’re mostly engineers, so the way we think about product development is we are building and shipping against those projections. So anything we’re building to try to counter disinformation, anything we’re building to try to counter online extremism, anything we’re building to counter organized harassment online, state-sponsored cyberattacks. We’re building against what we think the problem will look like one to two years from now. And again, we do that by spending time in some of these geopolitical hotspots.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. And you used the phrase—not today on stage—that I loved with regard to countries like Ukraine, you called them “target practice countries,” really good. And that’s where they’re trying out things, especially—maybe the Russians in that case, that they subsequently did use on—maybe Georgia’s another target practice country where they played around and then they really learned, they refined their tools and then they helped Donald Trump get elected here, which is pretty much proven.
So many things—you also said, “Everything today, we’ve seen before.” And there’s this amazing—at least one scene in your book where guns are drawn in Congress and people are pummeling one another in ways that we think of—we make fun of happening in some distant, small country. But, in fact, the U.S. Congress has been the scene of rioting, in effect.
Cohen: But you would think in writing a book—
Kirkpatrick: Not that bad yet.
Cohen: You’d think in writing a book about—but I love this. We’re going back and forth between my dead presidents and—
Kirkpatrick: Well, I’m trying to do that for you.
Cohen: And it’s fun. I like it.
Kirkpatrick: You wanted that.
Cohen: This is a nice illustration of what my days have been like.
Kirkpatrick: It’s good. Okay.
Cohen: For like, the past five and a half years. So it’s interesting. You would think spending all this time writing a book about presidents dying in office would leave you with this, like, deep sort of depression. But I had a different reaction to it, which is I found myself sort of strangely comfortable, not with the situation we’re in today because obviously we’re in a messy political situation. But what scares me is when I really believe we’re seeing something that has no root in history. That’s scary because then you have nothing to draw on and you’re starting from scratch. I feel much more comfortable when I see something that is complicated and difficult and we can draw on lessons from history, and we do this very well with economic depressions and recessions and so forth. We don’t do it as well with polarization. We have a lot of great examples from polarization.
So the book—even though I cover these eight transitions—between 1841 and 1963, the president died in office every 10 to 20 years, just like a common thing. So the book covers this 122 year period of history and a lot of things happened back then that touch on things today. So we look at how nasty Congress is today. Well, in 1850, a senator from Mississippi pulled a gun on another senator in the chamber and tried to shoot him until he was restrained. You then had a brawl in Congress that lasted about an hour and ten minutes. Everybody was sort of bloodied up and sat down and got back to work. Nobody was censured. Nobody was kicked out of office. Nobody died. Now, you know, if that was a one-off, that would be one thing. But there were also multiple brawls in Congress in the 1840s, multiple brawls in Congress all the way up to the Civil War. Today it feels like the worst that happens is somebody writes a mean tweet about somebody except for the guy who body slammed the reporter.
Kirkpatrick: True.
Cohen: Right. So that’s the—
Kirkpatrick: Not in the House.
Cohen: Not in the House or even—we talk about—
Kirkpatrick: He was just elected to the House after that.
Cohen: We talk about how impeachment has become a political tool. Impeachment has always been a political tool. The first impeachment proceedings were brought against John Tyler in the 1840s purely on partisan politics because the Whig Party wanted to kick him out of the party. And he responded by covertly annexing Texas in a moment of kind of political rage which precipitated war with Mexico and set us on the path to Civil War. Or even musical chairs with the Cabinet. Everyone’s obsessed with the fact that there’s all these Cabinet vacancies. When Zachary Taylor dies in office in 1850, Millard Fillmore takes the oath of office. You’ve all thought lots about Millard Fillmore. [LAUGHTER] He takes the oath of office and then sacks the entire Cabinet. And then Congress goes into recess at literally the most polarized moment in American history and there’s nobody to lead departments and agencies for many, many months. And even in terms of constitutional crises, the most sustained constitutional crisis in the history of the republic has been how we’ve more or less winged presidential succession. So we have no provision in the constitution for replacing the vice president until the 25th Amendment in 1967. And yet, six of the eight vice presidents who became president after their predecessor died in office nearly themselves died in office, including John Tyler, who in February of 1844 is nearly killed on board the USS Princeton when a gun explodes and kills half the Cabinet.
Kirkpatrick: Wow. [LAUGHTER] You know, to tie the two issues together, one of the things that you’re—
Cohen: I’m trying to make things more difficult, David.
Kirkpatrick: It’s good. It’s—one of the things you’re most passionate about is the importance of both science and humanities and not trying to put the weight too high on either one, too heavily on either one. And you say you bet on that 15 years ago. So talk about your bet and talk about why you’re so passionately convinced that we need to think that way. And, I mean, we could talk about how could we all think more that way because I think that is a problem.
Cohen: Yes. So the way that I’ve always—I’ve always loved anthropology and I’ve always loved investigative journalism. And I’m neither an anthropologist nor an investigative journalist, but I admire both trade crafts from afar. But for me a seminal moment with technology, when I was living in Iran in 2004 and 2005, seeing the way that young people in that country were using technology to organize things they weren’t allowed to do mostly for social and recreational purposes, it was clear that they were training in civil society activism, except they didn’t realize that they were doing that because they didn’t have the right political context. They just had the social context. And what I realize is you have to be willing to show up and spend time on the human intelligence side of things, meaning the sort of anthropological work and engaging people face to face to understand the context, which makes you think about technology you thought you understood in different ways. And so what I always say is, “You can’t understand the world without understanding technology, but you can’t understand technology without understanding people.” And for all the focus on artificial intelligence and this and that, I think if we really want to anticipate where all these problems are going and if we really want to find meaningful solutions to them, we need to find the right balance between artificial intelligence and human intelligence. And again, I define human intelligence as that anthropological investigative journalistic trade craft that I think should be more baked into how we do business.
Kirkpatrick: Really good. So I’m going to take a couple of audience questions. You have to leave like—
Cohen: I’m okay.
Kirkpatrick: You’re okay. Because we’re going to get—you’re signing your book, right?
Cohen: Yes.
Kirkpatrick: And so is Mark, who’s our next speaker.
So let’s—did I already see a hand here? Okay. Were you just stretching? Oh, you did. And then we’ll get to you next. Please identify yourself.
Margaret: Okay. I’m Margaret from Ericsson. Can you talk a little bit about the process of buying presidential hair? [LAUGHTER] And how did you know it was legitimately that president’s hair?
Kirkpatrick: Yes, those are good questions.
Margaret: I’m serious. I couldn’t get that out of my mind.
Kirkpatrick: Really good questions.
Cohen: No, no, no. First of all, I’m glad you went there. [LAUGHTER] And you should. So it’s a small ecosystem. [LAUGHTER] Basically, I’ve got a hair guy. No, all joking aside, it is an interesting—so historically, people didn’t ask for autographs. They would write—all the way up until—it really—it changes with Theodore Roosevelt. But before Theodore Roosevelt, people would write the president and ask for a lock of their hair. So the president—and not just the president, but well-known people. So the president would cut a lock of their hair, attach it with wax to the letter, and then send it back. And it’s a surprisingly easy thing to authenticate because you test the age of the hair, you test the age of the wax, you test the age of the paper. And then there’s sort of all this other provenance. You never really know. So you kind of—if you’re going to get in this game, you have to sort of be okay with the idea that you never intend to sell it. [LAUGHTER] And then I had to cut a deal with my wife that I would never exchange money for hair, so the deal I cut with my presidential autograph dealer who’s also a great authenticator was that I would basically overpay for the autograph and get the hair as a kickback. [LAUGHTER]
Kirkpatrick: Wow. That’s a great answer. Okay. Over here.
Schultz: Hi, Deb Schultz. Just back to New York from 14 years in SF. You talk a lot about—and I concur—that there’s perspective that history provides us. Do you think there’s anything different today, though, versus the past in terms of the speed with which we live and how technology’s impacting that? Like back in the day, you could get into all those fights in Congress but they wouldn’t be on C-SPAN. So I was just wondering if you think about the impact of those.
Cohen: Yes. So I do think one of the big impacts is we’re having a harder—despite all that technology does for efficiency, politically speaking, I think that there’s some evidence that it’s making things harder. And I think you can look at this on a number of different levels. I think if you look around the world, technology’s accelerated the pace of movement making, but I think it’s slowed down leadership development. So if you look at the great leaders throughout history, they began as leaders before they became public figures and now the stages have been reversed. So we won’t see any new leaders ever again that don’t immediately as they sort of enter the scenes get sort of cast into these social media celebrities. So then it’s just a different model, right? So you’re going to have these flash in a pan celebrities who then—they get all famous and stand in the town square and so forth. And then the question is which ones will buckle down and learn how to be real leaders and take their countries forward and so forth. And I think we’re still kind of, you know, experiencing some of the challenges of that.
I also think that the signal to noise problem has gotten—we’ve never had anything quite like this, so I think that the difficulty that governments are having taking the pulse of their populations means that there’s a measurement problem, right? So it’s—what that means is miscalculation is happening more often, so they’re either underreacting to something or overreacting to something. And by the way, I think that’s true for all of us too. I mean, I think the signal to noise challenge whether you’re a government or an individual or a businessperson, just the risk of miscalculating things is just greater. So I think that’s another challenge.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. Sorry. Oh, we’ll get to you. Oh. Zachary, okay, with two of my friends. Okay. Let’s go to Alec first.
Ellison: Thanks. Alec Ellison, Outvest Capital. First of all, great shout-out on Harry Truman. So seven of the eight presidents are the presidents elected in the year ending in zero, 1840, ‘60, ‘80, 1900, ‘20, ‘40, ‘60, and, of course, Reagan almost dies from Hinckley’s bullet. So seven of the eight. Next year’s 2020, year ending in zero. Should—
Kirkpatrick: Another presidential historian who’s in another field, he’s an investor. But go on.
Ellison: Do you believe in the 20 year curse? And should the candidates running for president next year be concerned about the year being 2020?
Cohen: So I will answer that question in two ways. One, the first chapter of the book, which is called “First to Die,” begins with the tale of Chief Tecumseh who fought—spent his entire life fighting against William Henry Harrison in various battles. And as the story goes, he put a curse on William Henry Harrison saying, you know, “Harrison will die and then the president elected every 20 years will also die.” And I say in the book that this would be an incredible story and an incredible feed and we love sort of curses and chiefs and so forth, except it was a fabrication in the 1923 edition of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” [LAUGHTER] But it’s a great story and enough that I started the book with it. But what I will say—all joking aside—about the current moment that we’re in, we’re in the longest period of time without a president dying in office. The previous time was George Washington to William Henry Harrison. So we’re in the longest period of time without the president dying in office. We have the oldest president in the history of the republic. And the two leading contenders on the Democratic side are both in their 70s. So if ever there’s a time to rally around the vice president, it would be now. [LAUGHTER] Right? And it’s interesting. So if you take—putting aside the eight vice presidents who became president when their predecessor died and putting aside Ford, who was neither elected as vice president or president, and ends up in that role. The only vice presidents who served out their terms who ended up as president were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but this predates the 12th Amendment where the person who came in second place ended up as vice president. Martin Van Buren, it’s like, who cares? And—
Kirkpatrick: Richard.
Cohen: —Richard Nixon. And George H.W. Bush. So what that basically means is Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush are the only two vice presidents who served out an entire term—in their case, they served out two—who ended up themselves being elected president. And this is an extraordinary observation. You asked the question, “Why is that?” It’s because, you know, historically, people have looked for the JV version of themselves to be on the ticket because you don’t want the person who’s going to overshadow you. So that is sort of a checkmark next to find somebody boring. But then don’t find somebody so boring that they embarrass you. [LAUGHTER]. My problem is I don’t want the JV version of the person elected president to be a heartbeat away from it. So if you look at the current election today, my call to the sort of 50 or 60 candidates running on the Democratic side would be—[LAUGHTER]
Kirkpatrick: Somebody said 70 earlier on the—
Cohen: —would be—
Kirkpatrick: We have two of them tomorrow but go on.
Cohen: —would be make a statement. Pick somebody who doesn’t win you a state, doesn’t appease or win you a particular constituency, but who looks like they could be the next generation of leadership in the party. And this is an opportunity to really change that norm.
Kirkpatrick: Okay. This is going to have to be the last question.
Karabell: Hi. Zachary Karabell. Pushing on the question of differences between then and now, the signal and noise is an interesting one, but do you feel like there is something in this world that is so different about the digital disruptions of democracy that people are legitimately concerned about versus “Remember the Maine” and Pulitzer journalism in the 1890s that certainly spread lots of myths, mistruths or myths that were widely accepted, were not easily contradicted by countervailing information? I mean, is there something that is so radically different or are we constantly reinventing the wheel and shocked that there’s gambling in Casablanca? And then you did mention it, but I would like to know poor Gerald Ford, who was neither elected—and the only appointed person doesn’t even make your accidental president club?
Cohen: So what I should say about Zachary is he could have asked me any question about Chester Arthur, having written a great book about Chester Arthur.
Kirkpatrick: He’s a historian.
Cohen: But he didn’t. Surprise, surprise. But no, Zachary wrote a book on Chester Arthur that was very helpful in my research. So to your—I’ll take the second question first, which is on Nixon to Ford. I decided to focus on the ones who died in office because there’s something about death that I associated with depriving the voters of their choice. You know, whereas with Nixon, it was manmade and Ford had no obligation probably—other than to pardon Nixon—to adhere to Nixon’s foreign or domestic policies. But the transitions around death are so interesting because each of the accidental presidents has to sort of deal with the fact that they’re filling somebody else’s shoes. Nobody wants them as president. Again, most of them were sort of reviled and so it’s a particularly disruptive type of transition. I talk about Nixon to Ford and yes, I was able to do a bunch of interviews associated with this. But I talk about them in the context of the 25th Amendment because the first time—the 25th Amendment has never been used to replace the president based on a disability for any situation other than colonoscopies. [LAUGHTER] And the first time it’s used is to pluck Gerald Ford from Michigan’s fifth district and make him vice president and then he formally becomes president when Nixon resigns. Remember, LBJ becomes president in 1963 based on a precedent set by John Tyler in 1841. That’s not formalized until you have the 25th Amendment in ’67.
To your other question, I think the issue is when all this technological disruption happens in autocratic societies—other than the sort of Arab Spring, which was a messy period for autocratic societies, a lot of the—I find in talking to people who live in autocratic countries, they’re less surprised by all of this. Whereas in the U.S., when it doesn’t work perfectly, I find we’re more surprised. So we’re surprised that, you know, disinformation is happening at scale. And we’re surprised that there’s sort of greater calls for restrictions on civil liberties. And I think the thing that concerns me the most is if I reflect back to the early days of the Arab Spring or even going back to the Green Revolution in Iran, it seemed as if something had been created that was either going to turn autocratic societies into Jeffersonian democracies or destabilize them and then everything in between. Either way, it seemed like it wasn’t going to be business as usual for autocracies. And it seemed like that political system was on the decline. And then sometime around the failed coup attempt in Turkey and reinforced by the election meddling in 2016, it became clear that—
Kirkpatrick: Potentially the rise of Facebook globally, but keep going.
Cohen: It appeared as if a lot of these autocratic countries kind of figured out how to navigate this and then the problem became more pronounced in democratic societies. And now we’re kind of grappling with a lot of the chaos that they experienced in 2010, 2011, and subsequent years. The difference is it’s not clear that we know what the answer is. Right? I think it’s much easier for autocratic countries to come up with a national coherent strategy for how to do this and it’s reflective of a very different value system. I’m not sure what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like in democratic society.
Kirkpatrick: Well, especially because we have a virus of the spread of autocratic countries. I mean, that is a real phenomenon.
Cohen: So my biggest concern—as somebody who believes in democracy and wants to see democracy thrive—is I don’t like when I go around the world and people are now making the case for a more autocratic mode of governance. And when that’s coupled with a rise of populism and xenophobia and a number of other things, I start to get very nervous about where we’re heading.
Kirkpatrick: Well, you look at Poland or Brazil, I mean—
Cohen: Hungary.
Kirkpatrick: We have a lot of new countries that are heading that way. And I would—not to press you on it—but Facebook is implicated. But that’s another discussion which we’ve had at Techonomy many times, as you may know. [LAUGHTER]
So Jared, that was great.
Cohen: Thank you. Are you going to tell them to buy the book?
Kirkpatrick: Yes. Buy the book. [LAUGHTER] It’s going to be for sale out here. You have to say that, but I’ll say it too. And he’s going to sign it. And so is Mark going to sign his book. We’re going to have some book signing in just a little while.
So thank you. It was great to have you.
Cohen: I appreciate it.


David Kirkpatrick

Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Techonomy

Jared Cohen

Director, Google Ideas

Scroll to Top