I reached the halfway point in the book I’m currently reading, Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, as we began our descent into JFK yesterday. It’s been on my mind to read since Janet Maslin’s enthusiastic NYT review last September. And then she put it at the top of her 2011 top ten around Thanksgiving, calling it a “staggering tale about the American presidency, adding that Millard
zeroes in on what other historians overlook. Ms. Millard digs deeply into the turmoil that got James A. Garfield elected, the lunacy that got him shot and the medical malfeasance that turned a minor wound into a mortal one. Her story is so full of outsize figures — not least of them the unexpectedly noble Garfield — that Alexander Graham Bell is only a bit player.
It’s a short book, 260 pages. I would have welcomed more details on Garfield’s time in Congress, or his duties as president of the university that is now Case Western Reserve, or the 1880 election. But Millard isn’t writing a biography, and doesn’t claim to. Indeed, the title does a perfectly good job of describing what Millard is writing. And so far, she’s doing a fine job of it.
As evidence of that, I was so caught up in the stage she had set for Garfield’s shooting that I kept hoping for a change of route, an alteration of circumstance, that would prevent Guiteau from firing the gun. Alas, Millard failed to change history and the shots went off on schedule.
This morning I got a few pages into the second half of the book, learning of the medical attention Garfield received at Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac train station in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Perhaps as further evidence of Millard’s story-telling prowess, I put my Kindle aside with the thought that I may be just as happy not reading further. The medical mishaps are already too painful to learn about, to say nothing of the pain they caused Garfield.
I’ll keep going. I’m eager to learn more about Chester Arthur. I’ve already learned what a mediocrity he was before the vice-presidency was thrust on him. The book is a valuable reminder of the immense importance of the vice-presidential selection process, and none too soon, as another round soon waits us. (I wonder anew what McCain was thinking.)