Sunday, December 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction unless it’s for research purposes. When I do, I don’t usually choose books focused on American presidents. However, I spotted a review of Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard over at Reading for Sanity and I was intrigued.

The book, subtitled: "A tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President," is the story of the assassination of President James Garfield. Elected in 1880, Garfield was only four months into his presidency when an assassin tried to take his life. The gunshot wounds were not immediately fatal. In fact, they very well might not have proved fatal at all but for the medical attention Garfield received–repeated non-sterile probing of the wound–that caused him to eventually die of infection, his body riddled with abscesses.

A few years ago, I read a short history of medicine in America book that included a short account of Garfield’s murder. Knowing as little as I did about Garfield, I found it interesting that his physicians had contributed so substantially to his death. I was curious to learn more.

Millard’s account goes beyond the details of the assassination to paint a fuller picture of Garfield the man and to place him in the context of his times. Brilliant, affable, and reasonable, Garfield had been nominated at the 1880 Republican convention against his own will and had no desire to become president. However, he was very well regarded and the consensus seems to be he would have been an exceptional president.

The assassin’s life story and motivation for murder was also explored. A loner who bounced from failure to failure—spending time in a religious commune, as a lawyer, as a traveling evangelist, even a short stint in prison—Charles Guiteau had grandiose visions of his own importance. His own family members were certain he was insane. Upon Garfield’s election, Guiteau became convinced that he would be given a high position in the government. He traveled to Washington and began haunting the White House, writing numerous letters to Garfield and to other prominent men explaining his expectations. Eventually his delusions took over completely, and he decided Garfield had to be "removed." He bought a gun, looked for the opportunity, and shot him.

The record continues with the disastrous medical care Garfield received. It also includes a discussion of Alexander Graham Bell and the attempts Bell made to hurriedly invent a device to locate the bullet lodged somewhere in Garfield’s body. For more than two months, the doctors (particularly the arrogant and painfully wrongheaded Dr. Willard Bliss) hovered about, making things worse, while Garfield died a slow, painful death without ever losing his dignity or gentlemanly demeanor.

In this straight-forward, well-organized narrative, Millard blends politics, history of medicine, and a touching love story to show that Garfield’s story was a fascinating one even if his presidency was tragically short-lived.