What a book! Since James Garfield is likely in everyone’s category of lesser known presidents, this book is an unexpected experience. It’s not a typical cradle-to-grave biography, but I felt I knew President Garfield better than some other presidents where I read a full biography. As you may recall, Garfield was shot by an assassin early in his presidency. He really didn’t have any time to take significant action as president, but he was such a fine, genuine man that you will ask the what-if questions. I suspect he would have been one of the better presidents between the legendary Lincoln and the famous Teddy Roosevelt had he had the opportunity to serve out his term.
This book with its subtitle “a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president” focuses on the peculiar aspects of his death. Kudos to Millard for seeing the potential in this fascinating story. Though she has written only a few titles, she is one of the better writers of our day. She can tell a story! She is so good with words and sentences that even the more mundane moments of the story still read easily. To my mind, and why I could easily recommend this as the perfect biography of James A. Garfield, she gives such an exquisite portrait of the man that I could imagine what it would be like if he walked in the room and sat down and started talking. That is the quintessential skill needed to be a biographer.
I don’t know how she did it, but in 300 pages she also brought to life Garfield’s bizarre assassin, Charles Guiteau. The term used for him in his day was “monomaniac”, and yet whatever you might label him today, Millard creates a full-orbed postmortem of his unique pathology. She also exposed Garfield’s failed, egotistical physician, Dr. Bliss. Unfortunately, Dr Bliss denied the scientifically sound teachings of Joseph Lister and denied the idea of germs! And yes, Dr Bliss, ultimately killed President Garfield by incompetence. People of that day could not resist saying, “ignorance is Bliss”. The famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, also took a large part in the story. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I assure you there is a captivating story here. The story doesn’t have the raw adventure of Millard’s The River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip in the Amazon, but don’t suppose for a moment this work is any less gripping.
Back to Garfield, I think he had the potential to have been an echo of Lincoln. He was born into incredible hardship and poverty as his dad died when he was a young man. His remarkable mother held the family together, invested in young Garfield’s life, and imbibed her Christianity and its ethics into the fabric of his life. The adult Garfield was a man who loved his wife and children, was one who lived above politics in a way few politicians have ever succeeded in doing, was a man who practiced forgiveness, and was one who possessed a personal faith in God. Along the way, he was a Civil War hero and a well-read, educated man despite his background. The story of him being upset by his nomination at the Republican convention for president is the perfect example of the man he was. He was there to nominate another guy and he was truly upset that he would hurt him to the extent that he took no joy at all in his unexpected, dramatic nomination! How many politicians do you know like that? In character and genuineness, Garfield was one of our best presidents. It is truly sad that our country missed the opportunity that lie in a man of his caliber in the White House. It seemed that Americans of that day realized what they had and what they lost. They knew that later generations would probably forget him as has happened, but they also knew that he was one of the better men to have held the office.