Sunday, August 26, 2012

We Americans Sometimes Slow To Learn A Lesson

(From today's Times and News-Star)

Why is it we all know who shot presidents Lincoln and Kennedy and even who shot Martin Luther King, but nobody much knows who shot presidents James Garfield and William McKinley, which seems an especially heartless break for both Garfield and McKinley, on both sides of the coin.

Probably more people today recognize the names John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray than the names Garfield and McKinley. (What is the deal with assassins with three names?)

Even fewer would know WHEN Garfield and McKinley were presidents, and the only reason I do is because I just read a 2011 bestselling book about Garfield, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” by Candice Millard.

A former editor and writer at “National Geographic” magazine, Millard does not write in a sensory way but does write with extreme clarity and organization, something the less learned such as myself will be grateful for if reading this remarkable and most noteworthy history lesson that, like Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” or Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” might have been mostly lost to history had she not taken the time to unearth it and spotlight it for our generation.

Garfield was top shelf. The last of our presidents born in a log cabin, he was dirt poor, his dad died when he was 2, he was the janitor at the school he attended and was teaching classes before his first year was completed. Later he was the school’s president.

That’s working your way up from the bottom.

The presidency was sort of thrown at him, and he accepted the nomination even though he didn’t run for it or want it. He was not as politically savvy as many others in Congress, yet he was wiser, more jolly and smarter than most of those he served with.

A nut named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back at a train station; Garfield died four months later. Here’s where things get extra weird.

Had the doctors left him alone, Garfield would have likely healed. But in their misguided and egotistical attempts to find the bullet, they introduced infections that would kill him. Given the chance, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell would have likely found the bullet with one of his new inventions; Bell was stymied by the ego of others.

A couple of things changed after Garfield’s death in 1881. For one, shaken by the random act of a madman, the country was united for the first time since the War Between the States. And two, governmental appointments were thereafter earned on the basis of merit and not handed out as political favors; the delusional Guiteau shot the president in part because he wasn’t given a government job.

However, Secret Service agents wouldn’t be assigned to guard the president until 20 years later, after McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz. Until then, the author points out, “the idea of surrounding (a president) with guards…still seemed too imperial, too un-American.”

That Garfield was shot, a national experience of shared horror and senselessness, is the shame of it all. He seems the kind of man you would want to hitch your country’s wagon to, then or now. A family man, wise and noble who, as a reporter of the time observed, “walked at evening with his arm around the neck of a friend in affectionate conversation, and whose sweet, sunny, loving nature not even 20 years of political strife could warp.”