Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard, narrated by Paul Michael

James Garfield already seemed like a cool president to me even though I know next to nothing about him (in my defense, he was president for only three months before being shot), just what I recently read on the awesome blog, At Times Dull (Janet, the industrious blogger here is methodically reading through the presidents, one bio for each one, in order, with hilarious reviews and odd facts. She does not like Garfield, and I agree he does seem to have been a bit of an egoist and liked the ladies, but those facts are not given in my book - only one instance of his cheating is admitted - so I should not include them in my review.)

Some fun facts: Garfield's only case as a lawyer was in front of the Supreme Court and he won. Charles Guiteau, his future assassin, once threatened to beat up a juror in the courtroom. Guiteau's legal career was wildly unsuccessful. Also it is bizarre to think about someone being nominated for president who actively did not seek it - in fact Garfield himself had nominated someone else. What an incredible burden and responsibility that is, and to not to have felt like you even had any say in taking it on, must have been very frustrating, and he is all the more admirable for taking on that challenge that he did not want. His election in 1880 had the highest voter turnout ever.

Garfield grew up very poor, his father having died when he was just two, but his mother and older brother were adamant that he go to school and to college. So a man who didn't own shoes until he was four years old, graduated from Williams College with honors. He was a college president by age 26. He went on to be a successful general in the Civil War, winning the decisive battle to keep Kentucky in the Union with only a small company. He was elected to Congress but didn't show up for a year until Lincoln appealed to him directly as the Republicans needed his vote. He had thought he was more effective and helpful in the field of battle. Man, he sounds like such excellent President material. Kind of makes you hate Guiteau all the more. (Plus, his VP, Chester Arthur, was a nightmare) Guiteau couldn't have killed one of the useless, blah presidents. No, he had to murder a promising, upstanding, honorable one.

The Federal Government at this time was mostly run based on something called the spoils system, wherein government jobs were handed out by powerful politicians to their friends, regardless of skills, ability, or willingness to do the job. In fact, that's how Chester Arthur became VP - because he was best buds with Senator Conkling from New York, who was the most powerful man in the government at that time. A big reason Hayes didn't run for reelection was because he was trying to get rid of the spoils system and was battling Conkling, and after that figured there was no way to win a second term. Luckily our man Garfield didn't like it either and getting rid of it was a key part of his platform (as much as there were platforms back then. It was viewed as "unseemly" to actually run for office.) Unluckily, the bonkers Guiteau somehow got it in his head that he ought to be Ambassador to Austria - wait, no, France. And he went to the White House every day for a few months to see about that. Back then, the White House was considered to be The People's House and citizens could come and go as they pleased, basically having the run of things. Garfield's secretary ran interference, but that was frowned upon, as Presidents were obliged to listen to their constituents. But Guiteau was so obviously off his rocker that he was generally kept away (although not after spending several days also harassing the Secretary of State, and also writing a couple of letters to Arthur, which he thought meant they were best friends.) See, once Guiteau had given a very short speech, one of many, in Garfield's favor and therefore he felt he had gotten Garfield elected and deserved, in fact was entitled to, this fancy job. And as weeks and months went by and he didn't get it, he became increasingly agitated.

Guiteau at this point had had dozens of jobs and had failed at all of them. After getting kicked out of the Oneida commune (impressive feat), he had been an itinerant minister who felt he didn't have to pay to ride the train or for the boarding houses where he stayed. (Once he was arrested for skipping out on his hotel bill and was astonished that he could be arrested for that, as if he had stolen something. You did steal something, nitwit!) He had "written" a book that was mostly plagiarized, and tried to sue Oneida for not paying him for work he did (forgetting he'd signed a contract stipulating that when he joined). His family were all utterly humiliated and disowned him except for one sister who took him in. One day he actually was being uncharacteristically helpful and chopped up some wood for the fire. But he characteristically refused to stack it int he woodpile, instead leaving it lying all over the yard and path. His sister went out to stack it for him, and he raised the axe to her, like he was going to chop her, and then lost his last free place to stay. (Although her husband, a lawyer, did defend him at his trial. But how helpful a patent attorney was at a murder trial is hard to say.) So at this point he was poor, crazy, angry, unemployed, and friendless. His family did try to get him committed, but he ran off and escaped before the jury that would formally commit him would meet.

So he ended up on a train platform with a gun, looking for Garfield. He said he thought God had told him to murder Garfield, and he thought General Sherman would rush to town and save him, and his friend Chester Arthur would be so grateful, he'd finally get his ambassadorship. Needless to say, that's not what happened.

You may have heard that Garfield's wound wasn't fatal at all, but instead it was all the doctors sticking their dirty fingers in the wound that caused the infection that killed him, and you'd be right. Lister had already invented antisepsis techniques which were being publicized and were well-known, but unfortunately they weren't widely accepted yet, and doctors often thought that washing your scalpel was enough - you didn't need to also wash your hands, or if the sterilized scalpel fell on the floor, that was okay - you can just pick it up and go on. In fact, if you needed both hands, you could just hold the knife between your teeth for a while. So even the ones who thought they were being sterile usually weren't. But Garfield wasn't even that lucky as the pompous doctor who took over his case thought Lister was a kook and his ideas about invisible germs would be discredited.

Alexander Graham Bell enters the book at this point. He was worried about the president's condition and came up with an idea that he hoped could help. What if he could invent a gizmo that would pinpoint where the bullet was in Garfield? Then his doctors could better know if it had likely nicked the kidney or gall bladder or what other organs were between it and the entrance wound. Using technology developed when inventing the telephone, he invented the first metal detector. Unfortunately, Garfield's egotistical doctor was such a control freak he would only let Bell search for the bullet on the side where the doctor was already certain it was (it wasn't) so that was a bust. After lingering for three months, with increasing discomfort from multiple infections, Garfield finally died.

In his death, he accomplished two things. First was the thing he had really wanted to accomplish in his presidency: getting rid of the Spoils System. It was seen as having directly contributed to his death (without it, Guiteau wouldn't have felt entitled to a job) and so it was gone. The other thing, which no one could have foreseen and was so important it was almost worth losing a president over, was healing the country. It was a scant 15 years after the Civil War, the country was still very much divided, and yet when Garfield was shot, everyone came together in worry and anxiety about his fate. When he died, the whole country mourned as one. Guiteau was found guilty and hanged.

Random fact: Robert Lincoln was at the train station when Garfield was shot. He was also later with McKinley when he was shot too, having the dubious distinction of being the only person present for the assassinations of three presidents. He later would turn down presidential invites, deeming them too risky for the health of the president.

Another random fact: this still didn't convince people that the president needed any kind of security protection. Now the assassination of Lincoln was considered an act of war and therefore an aberration, particularly for a country not at war. But you'd think after Garfield that the security detail would be upped. Nope. Not until after McKinley's murder.

I listened to this on audio and loved the narrator, Paul Michael. His deep, sonorous voice was perfect for a presidential bio: very authoritative and respectful. His female voices mostly sounded the same, but there weren't many so that wasn't important. His accents were great (Alexander Graham Bell was Scottish and he did Queen Victoria briefly too.) Candice Millard really knows how to write a good yarn and make history come alive. There were even moments when I caught myself thinking, "maybe Garfield will pull through!" even knowing full well that couldn't be the outcome, but she was that good at creating suspense and hope. Wonderful book, anyone with even a remote interest in American history should enjoy it thoroughly.

I listened to the audio book which I bought from Audible.

1 comment:

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

This was my "presidential" book choice for our November book club. We all really liked the book, and it was a great discussion. And it's really lingered with me since then.