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'Destiny of the Republic' paints illuminating -- and tragic -- picture of Garfield

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2012 - Even in the hyperbolic world of American politics, there was something uniquely superlative about James Garfield.

From his rise in politics from a hardscrabble upbringing in rural Ohio to surviving close shaves on the Civil War battlefield to possessing so much raw intelligence that he submitted his own proof of the Pythagorean theorem, Garfield’s biography provides endless fodder for presidential junkies.

Even his unlikely nomination to the presidency was spectacular. As the senator-elect from Ohio, Garfield came into the 1880 Republican National Covention as a surrogate for longshot candidate John Sherman. His nominating speech for the “Ohio Icicle” was so mezmerizing that the stir-crazy GOP delegates eventually selected Garfield as their standard bearer, even though he strenuously objected. Such a spontaneous decision was unprecedented in American history and stands in marked contrast to choreographed conventions of modern times.

After narrowly winning the general election in 1880, Garfield entered office facing a flurry of office-seekers and opposition within his own party. Thanks to an assassin’s bullet and medical incompetence, Garfield became a footnote in American history. His short tenure is known more for how madness squandered the promise of his administration, instead of greatness fulfilled.

Candice Millard, a former reporter for National Geographic turned nationally acclaimed author, has chronicled the life and death of the nation’s 20th president in "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President." Combining riveting prose with extensive historical research, Millard deftly transforms one of America's forgotten politicians into an extraordinary figure.

Millard was in town Thursday for the St. Louis County Library Foundation’s Westfall Favorite Author Series. She spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about "Destiny of the Republic," which has won numerous awards and was a New York Times’ Notable Book of 2011. Her next project, she said, will be about  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In an interview with the Beacon before speaking at the St. Louis County Public Library, Millard discussed the fascinating backstory behind Garfield’s rise to power and the tragic missed opportunities to keep him alive. The interview and questions were edited for clarity and length.

Whenever I tell people I’m reading "Destiny of the Republic," they're frequently surprised that such a popular book was written on a lesser-known president. Some people thought that I was reading about the cartoon cat.

Millard: Oh, that cursed cat.

What’s been the reaction to the book? Was it difficult to tackle a historical figure that isn’t universally known?

Millard: Surprisingly great. I’ve just gotten great reaction, but I didn’t know that going in. … My first book ["River of Doubt"] was about Theodore Roosevelt. You obviously have a built-in audience that’ll read anything about Theodore Roosevelt, doesn’t matter what it is. When I knew I was going to write about James Garfield, the hurdle was not only that people don't know anything about him, but they think there’s nothing to know. They think that he’s one of these boring, Gilded Age presidents with a beard and there’s nothing interesting. 

I knew that when you got to learn about him – which I did while doing my research – you’re blown away by him. But you have to give it that first chance. And I was concerned. Frankly, I think it helped that I had that first book. And so people were like ‘I like the first book, I’ll give this a try.’

Garfield’s ascendance to the Republican nomination for president seems without precedent. He started off as a surrogate for someone who was essentially an also-ran candidate, but was eventually nominated after a deadlock between former President Ulysses S. Grant and U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine. Is it accurate to be astonished at his nomination?

Millard: I was completely astonished by it. Let me say first of all, like most people I didn’t know anything about Garfield. Wasn’t interested in him. I was interested in Alexander Graham Bell.

And I was just doing general research on him and I stumbled upon this story about him trying to find the bullet in Garfield. And I was surprised. I had never heard the story. And I was like ‘why would he do that?’ He was a young man. He’s at the height of his fame and his power. He drops everything he’s doing to try and help Garfield.

I was like ‘if I only know what Garfield was like.’

So I research him. And he’s brilliant. He has a heart to match his mind… and I’m completely hooked. And then I start researching the convention. And I’m like ‘are you kidding me?’ This could never happen today. I mean, I don’t know if it’s ever happened in history – to have someone who didn’t want the nomination. Not only was he not a candidate, but he didn’t want to be a candidate. And to have everything turn around and in this landslide win the nomination at the convention, it was just insane.

At the time, it was seen as shocking. There’s article after article after article. I loved reading about the convention. All I had to do was tell the story.

One of the other fascinating aspects of the book is the rich background on Charles Guiteau, Garfield’s shiftless assassin with delusions of becoming a French consul. Of particular note is how accessible the president was: Guiteau even met face-to-face with Garfield and his wife.

Why do you think presidencies were so open back then? And do you think it’s a positive thing that in present times chief executives are so closed off?

Millard: I think it’s definitely a good thing. … It’s especially surprising that there had been already been a presidential assassination. And there had been assassinations happening in Europe all the time. And still, no Secret Service protection for the president. He’s walking around the city by himself all the time. Want to go somewhere? Just get a train ticket and ride on the train like everybody else.

He has zero protection. And as you say, it’s the height of the spoils system. Not only does he have no protection, he is obliged to meet with office-seekers day after day after day, one on one, from 10:30 in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon. So he has to have this direct contact with the public.

The reason is Americans felt very strongly that here in this country, we get to freely elect our presidents. So there shouldn’t be any danger to them. What’s going in Europe is because they have monarchies. They have their leaders forced on them. What happened with Lincoln was because we were at war. That will never happen again in this country and we should not have this distance between us and our freely chosen leader.

The spoils system – the controversial art of choosing gubernatorial appointees – was a dominant issue back in post-Reconstruction America. It even caused massive fissures in the Republican Party. And it’s often cited in an offhanded way as a reason Guiteau assassinated Garfield. Why was it such a big issue back when Garfield was president?

Millard: There’s extreme, extreme corruption. And things weren’t getting done. Roads weren’t getting fixed. Hospitals were disgusting and overpopulated. So the things that the government was supposed to do weren’t getting done because you had all these people who had absolutely no training for the jobs, no credentials, no obligations to do their jobs. They simply had been handed their jobs because of their associations with people in power.

There was this supreme corruption. And people thought the reason Charles Guiteau shot Garfield was because of the spoils system because he in his delusional mind thought ‘look, I gave this one speech for him, I was first in line. I went to the White House and the State Department every day. I should have been given the consul in Paris.'

It’s ridiculous. But really the real reason is because [Guiteau was] insane. And that’s the truth of it and that’s the tragedy as well.

The bigger tragedy of Garfield’s assassination is that he wasn’t killed by Guiteau's bullet, but by the incompetence of the physicians treating him. Can you talk about the medical incompetence that ended up killing Garfield?

Millard: I keep using the word ‘shocking,’ but here again it’s true. I mean, Joseph Lister had discovered antiseptics 16 years earlier and had dramatic results in his surgical wards in England and Europe. He had come to the United States, been invited as a keynote speaker at our big centennial exposition in the surgical division of this conference. And he had begged doctors to sterilize their hands and instruments. He told them, ‘you’re going to kill your patients if you don’t.’ And he was dismissed as ridiculous and even dangerous.

And you can only chalk it up to arrogance – and willful, willful ignorance. The only thing you can say in their defense is there were young doctors who were trying to be heard but again were being dismissed. And also after Garfield’s autopsy results were released, it was immediately apparent why he died. And that he didn’t have to. Antiseptics were adopted across the country, saving countless lives obviously.

When examining presidents that only served for a short time, there’s always the question of ‘what if?’ What do you think would have happened if Garfield had survived?

Millard: Obviously we can’t know with any certainty, because he was only president for a short time. But we can look at his career. He was in Congress for almost 18 years.

What we know about his life and frankly his character, I think we can say with certainty that we would have had advances in education, civil service reform, expanded rights for freed slaves. 

And I will say that even though he was only in office for four months before he was shot, in that brief time he managed to defeat the most powerful and most corrupt man in the country – [New York U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling].

Which was really extraordinary and it helped move toward many reforms because of that.

JR: Why should people learn about our lesser-known presidents?

CM: There’s always a benefit learning our own history, especially when you’re talking about the leader of a nation. You never know what you’re going to find. The lesson with Garfield is: Never dismiss somebody out of hand when you haven’t looked closely at his story. And I’m sure there are extraordinary stories in many, many, many of these presidents.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.