Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Book Review: "James Garfield" by Ira Rutkow

Here we have yet another installation of the American Presidents Series. This one was both readable and interesting—a look at one of our more "trivial" presidents. Garfield was shot just four months after he took office, and after seventy-nine days of dreadful suffering, passed into eternity, making Chester A. Arthur president.

Garfield's early years are concisely described, as are his years in the U.S. Congress as a representative from northeast Ohio. Garfield is one of the few men ever to become a college president, general, and congressman before the age of 32. And that, without much formal education before the age of 16 or so.

He became the Republican "dark horse" candidate for president in 1880 when the party couldn't settle on a nominee. In a very close election, hinging primarily on New York, he became president. His brief presidency was burdened by the onslaught of office-seekers who expected him to bestow some job upon them as a reward for their party participation.

One of them was a deranged man named Charles Guiteau. He eventually deluded himself into thinking that assassinating the president would win him the admiration of his countrymen (and Garfield's political opponents, including Arthur). He shot the president at the train station as Garfield was on his way to a vacation with his wife in New Jersey.

The author of this book is a medical doctor, and his most obvious thesis (and it is most obvious) is that Garfield's death could have been prevented, but for the pride and ineptitude of doctors who ignored recent discoveries in the field of antiseptic medicine. If you are interested in the medical history of Garfield's slow and painful demise, this is a most readable book, even if you are not steeped in medical knowledge.

And in an interesting epilogue, he compares the treatment of President Reagan, shot in 1981 (one hundred years after Garfield's 1881 shooting), with what Garfield received. Reagan was 20 years older and had a far more dangerous wound than Garfield had, yet was back to work within a couple weeks. He suggests that had Garfield been shot a century later, he could have been out of the hospital in 24 hours, recuperating at the White House, with excellent prospects of complete recovery. Of course, a century later, things like x-rays, CT scans, and latex gloves would have been universally available....

A very interesting book. I can recommend it highly.

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