Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Book Review of "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President"

by Nomad

The presidency of James Garfield is one of those chapters of American history that historians just tend to overlook. It's no surprise. It lasted only about seven months before ending with a ghastly assassination. And even that sensational aspect gets little attention, compared to the murders of Lincoln or Kennedy. 
Yet, as I soon discovered, it is a tale worth telling.

Historian Candice Millard takes up that challenge in her book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, which deals with this national tragedy, exploring both the colorful players and the events that led up to the murder and its dreadful aftermath.

How James Garfield got to be president at all is quite an extraordinary story in itself. In a search for a suitable nominee, the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago had become hopelessly deadlocked. The Stalwarts, a rebellious faction within the Republican party (much like the Tea Party conservatives of today) refused to budge. Their candidate of choice was Ulysses S. Grant who had already served two two terms as the eighteenth President of the United States (1869–1877).

Many at the convention thought two terms were quite enough for president Grant. During his administration, there were financial corruption charges or scandals in all federal departments; eleven scandals altogether One author, C. Vann Woodward in his article, The Lowest Ebb, observes (rather understatedly) that Grant had "difficulty in spotting corrupt individuals." 
In the eyes of corrupt individuals, Grant's blindness made him a perfect candidate to run for an unprecedented third term.

The leader of the Stalwarts was the formidable New York Senator Roscoe Cronkling who was, by any measure, a larger-than-life character. Few with common sense would have dared to oppose him. No one person had more political influence than Cronkling and he was not above using that power against anybody who stood in his way. 
The Republican party was in desperate need of reform; corruption within the party was rampant and it had made the leader of the Stalwarts rich, powerful and untouchable.

After an unbelievable 30 ballots failed to decide the party’s candidate, the convention finally nominated (against his will) the relatively unknown, James Garfield, the Senator from Ohio. Garfield had given a rousing speech (not for Grant) and, much to the surprise of party elites, delegates liked what they saw. Starting with the delegation from Wisconsin, state by state, sick of the endless wrangling, turned away from both of the party favorites and toward James Garfield. Nobody could have been more  surprised (and mortified) than Garfield himself. 
To obtain Stalwart support for the ticket,  a compromise was offered. Chester A. Arthur, whose entire career had been manufactured by Cronkling, was to serve as vice-president. Needless to say, the Garfield-Arthur ticket was not a marriage made in heaven. 

Garfield had never wanted to be president and had grave misgivings about his candidacy. Without much enthusiasm, he campaigned against the Democrat’s choice, Winfield Scott Hancock.  (He did much of his campaigning from his home in Ohio.) However, much to Garfield’s chagrin, he won the election and, against all odds, became the 20th president of the United States. 
It didn't take him long to make enemies. 
When Garfield made his cabinet appointments, Cronkling was not pleased to find that he and his crowd were to be left out in the cold. Cronkling was a man used to having his own way. At that point, Cronkling vowed to do all in his power to undermine the Garfield administration. And with Arthur totally under his control, he used the vice-president to cause mischief at every opportunity. 
For the president, there were other problems besides his political foes. 

As soon as he took office, Garfield was burdened with a much more personal problem. His wife, Lucretia, was struck down with malaria and for months, seemed near death. Theirs has always been complex relationship. Year before, after confessing to an extra-marital affair, Garfield and his wife had defied the odds and remained together. In the following years, they were able to create a stronger, more mature bond, based on a mutual respect. Despite their earlier problems and the responsibilities of the executive position, President Garfield personally nursed his wife back to health and refused to devote any more time to Washington politics than was absolutely necessary. 
*    *    *    *
The man who was his greatest threat was not Cronkling at all. That part belonged to an obnoxious preacher, writer, and lawyer who floated around the capital and was gradually losing his mind. The president's true nemesis, Charles J. Guiteau, (photo on left) was in character Garfield’s polar opposite. Though in some ways, their life conditions might have begun not so differently,  as they grew, the contrast between the two men could not be more different, especially when t came to character, their values and their choices.

In Giteau, author Millard paints a depressingly familiar portrait of the future assassin. The book, follows Guiteau down the inevitable steps of madness, from being a petty larcenist, to a plagiarist, to a religious fanatic, to an ambitious (but delusional) seeker of a position in  government. When finally that dream crashed in many pieces, we see the last role Guiteau’was to play, the divinely-chosen murderer of the president. 
In many ways, Guiteau becomes the archetype of the crazed assassin. (At least, John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, had a political motive.)

As if the senseless attack were not bad enough, to make matters worse, Giteau later claimed an association with the vice-president and thus, indirectly to Garfield's arch-rival, Cronkling. In actuality, this suggestion of conspiracy was nothing more than Giteau’s delusions and lies. Months before the attack, Guiteau had pestered many high ranking officials trying to convince them to hire him. (He especially desired the post of American Consul to France but would only agree to accepting the post if the offices were in Paris.)

When it came to staffing, Washington was a different place back then. After every election, office seekers flooded the nation's capital, looking for a post. With every new administration, there was chaos in Washington. Why? Because most of the over 100,000 federal government employees expected to be replaced when a new administration took over. Unlike these days, meetings with high level government officials was less regulated. 
Face to face meetings gave the obviously unstable Guiteau no great advantage over the competition. After a look at the shabbily-dressed Guiteau and his off-putting demeanor, officials quickly showed him the door with hasty excuses and less than convincing assurances. Guiteau, himself was oblivious to the negative impression he made on everyone he came into contact with. When he was told in no uncertain terms that he should continue annoying government officials, the blow was more than his fragile ego and unstable mind could endure. 

In any event, that tantalizing (but imaginary) link between the vice-president and Guiteau- which today would have been fodder for any number of Alex Jones’ radio shows- was entirely in the mind of an insane killer. (Even at that time, there were many people who suspected a Cronkling conspiracy and that suspicion was to have devastating consequences for Cronkling and the Stalwarts.)
*     *     *     *
The final piece of the puzzle comes after the July 2, 1881 shooting of the president in the Washington train station. Garfield, according to the author, might well have survived his wounds if not for the incompetence of doctors, specifically a self-appointed physician named Dr. Willard Bliss. Sanitation was not a high priority and even as the president began to recover, the doctors probed the president’s wounds with grubby unwashed fingers and filthy surgical equipment.

Bliss’ refusal to adopt sterile procedure protocols (already well-established in Europe and Great Britain by the vigorous campaigning of a British surgeon, Dr. Joseph Lister) was thought to have led directly to the lethal infection that was to kill Garfield. Most (but not all) American doctors simply were not prepared to admit that microscopic germs could be source of infection and that these germs were all around us. Besides, they objected, absolute sterilization was impractical. In an age before antibiotics, even the most routine operation of today was fraught with risk.  

The theme of rampant and dangerous ambition runs through book, from a madman’s quest for fame and his lunatic dreams of grandeur, to Cronkling’s (eventually self-destructive) ambition or the arrogant pride of Dr. Bliss upon whose dubious care the president’s survival depended. (After the death of the president, Bliss later had the nerve to give Congress a bill  of a half a million dollars for services rendered

Despite the assortment of scoundrels, there are some more appealing characters; Garfield’s devoted wife, for example, Alexander Graham Bell and his desperate attempts to devise a means of locating the lead bullets still lodged in Garfield’s body. And finally, there is Garfield himself whose endurance, courage and acceptance in the face of agony was a model of strength. 

Interestingly, according to the Millard, it was this prolonged suffering of the president of a nation that had yet to recover from the bitter Civil War which bonded the people as one again. The country, from North to South and East to West, mourned the president and first family together.  

As the author herself notes:
..[T]his story, now hardly remembered, was once a tragedy so wrenching that it transfixed and terrified an entire nation.

This book is my attempt to step back in time, to understand these men and this moment in history, and to tell a story that should never have been forgotten.
If you enjoy diving into little known episodes in American history like I do, Destiny of the Republic should make interesting reading. 
Now, here’s what others had to say about the book:
“Brings the era and people involved to vivid life. . . . Takes the reader on a compelling fly on-the-wall journey. . . . Millard takes all of these elements in a forgotten period of history and turns them into living and breathing things.”
—Associated Press

“Filled with memorable characters, hairpin twists of fate and consequences that bring a young nation to the breaking point, Destiny of the Republic brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
And finally a reader/reviewer on Amazon says:
Millard's book is structured like a fast-paced modern movie, with multiple simultaneous stories and characters that ultimately blend into a wonderfully cohesive, often poignant picture of a president, a genius inventor, a madman, a coward who finds his heart, and medical "professionals" with infinitely more ego than skill.
Hmmm. wish I had said that.