Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thoughts on Our Twentieth President (I Can Feel Your Excitement from Here!)

I recently read the book Destiny of the Republic, about the assassination of James Garfield, and now, as is my wont, I would like to share some thoughts about it.

We don’t talk a lot about James Garfield when we wax poetic about our mighty former presidents.  We don’t even wax poetic about him when talking about our mighty former presidents who were killed while in office.  We just don't think about him – unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to do much before he was shot in the back by a lunatic in a train station in 1881, just a few months into his presidency.  The wound itself was not fatal, but his doctors’ treatment of it was.  Garfield languished for two months, never complaining as he grew ever more infected, finally slipping away in what must have been a horrendously agonizing death.

It’s hard to say which part of this story is the craziest – that the man who shot Garfield was so delusional he thought that after killing the president, the public would revere him and elect him president himself…that Alexander Graham Bell, who had just dropped the telephone on us, worked around the clock in a pre-X-ray world to create a machine that would find the bullet (a machine that worked, but didn’t find the bullet because doctors, utterly convinced they already knew where the bullet was, didn’t use the machine on the correct side of Garfield’s body)…or that Joseph Lister, over in England, was stirring up a revolution in medicine with antisepsis while here in America countless professionals, insisting on age-old traditions of wearing lab coats splattered with blood and puss and sticking dirty fingers into wounds, blew him off, and wound up killing our president in the process.

Or maybe the craziest part is that Garfield didn’t even want to be president.  He went to the Republican convention in 1880 to nominate someone else, but so swayed the crowd with his speech that they ended up (much to his horror) nominating him instead.  (To think that there was ever a time when a person could be elected President of the United States against his will.)

There are so many aspects of this story that warrant more attention than history has given them.  But perhaps most painful to read about was the blind insistence on the part of the doctors that they were helping Garfield when, in fact, they were doing everything imaginable to make him worse. 

It's easy for us to sit on this side of history and scoff at the absurdity of the medical community not “believing” in germs.  But I don’t think the specifics here are the lesson.  I think that whether it’s germs, or ancient scientists refusing to accept that the earth moves around the sun, or even Hostess Brands refusing to acknowledge that relying solely on comically unhealthy junk food isn’t the best business model in the 21st century, there is a common theme in which we prove ourselves to be a species that stubbornly fights against change.

Knowing for a fact that there are many ways in which I could do better with that myself, I probably don’t have a lot of room to judge my predecessors for something that I happen to be guilty of too.

Picture from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, pilfered here via the New York Times.
It often seems arbitrary what changes time brings (a Secret Service department, hand sanitizer) and what it leaves alone (we never did get that allowing-lunatics-to-buy-guns thing straightened out).  But if time can be relied on for anything, it's to keep moving.  There was a part near the end of the book where, in thinking about the impact Garfield would have on history, contemporaries of his came to the grim (though accurate) conclusion that he would be forgotten.  There was no lasting triumph or single devastating blow to make his life, or death, all that memorable.

Apparently you can be President of the United States, get killed, send a nation into turmoil, and a couple of generations later, vanish from public consciousness.

Talk about a reality check for our self-absorbed times.


  1. Replies
    1. :) Thank you! (Not a post likely to generate the level of discussion of, say, a Jake and Tay-Tay post, but I felt it needed to be written regardless. ;))

    2. lol ... I have to say history is not my strongest x)

      and when politics join in everybody loses me - tho I can have a good debate about it (remember Obama and all a couple weeks ago) but over all I find it rather aggravating to say the I steer clear for most of the time *shameonme*

      Annie Sasha

    3. Haha, to each their own, Sasha!!! :D You certainly don't have to fake an interest in anything for my benefit. :)

    4. :D I am so bad in faking anything anyway - you wouldn't benefit, believe me x)

      Have a merry pre-christmas-time my dear ... gonna say it a million more times till it is here ....

      Annie Sasha

    5. Thank you!!! And right back at you!! I just put up a quasi-depressing post...but I'll put up something much more holiday-like in the next few days! Hope your pre-Christmas days are treating you well!! :D

    6. thank you :)

      it wasn't that depressing - thoughtful I'd say. it is a cruel word we are living in.

      well they did until tonight ... I ate a handful cookies and then there was pain - I lost a dental filling.
      And the biggest problem is: I am phobic when it comes to dentists. I can only hope that "my" two dentists will be working today - one of them at least ;)

      Annie Sasha

    7. Well, I hope it all worked out! Dental problems are bad under the best of circumstances. Hopefully you're fixed up and pain-free by now... :)

  2. You read the most interesting books. Are you on Goodreads? I'd like to see your lists.

    1. I'm not...but seeing as how I love seeing what other people are reading, I should get on there! I was thinking that I might post a list at the end of the year of what all I read in 2012. (I've been a reading fool lately. :))

  3. If you do, then please let me know.