Sunday, December 2, 2012

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Although you might be told not to judge a book by its cover, that is precisely why I became interested in Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. The picture of... well I didn’t know who, but whoever it was on the cover as well as the fonts used in the title and subtitle reached out and grabbed me in the book store. So without even knowing what the book was about, I dived in. 

It turns out that in this case, you CAN judge a book by its cover. 

Millard weaves a fascinating tale of the assassination of President Garfield only a few months after his inauguration. She seamlessly slips back and forth between the stories of the assassin, Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell, and Joseph Lister (a proponent of antisepsis). 

While the assassin, John Guiteau, plots to regain a life of meaning and purpose, Garfield is unanimously chosen as the Republican presidential nominee - against his wishes. He chooses Chester A. Arthur as his Vice-President in order to placate the faction of the party that supported the spoils system. Arthur has been bought and paid for by Garfield’s biggest rival, New York Senator, Roscoe Conkling. 

At the same time, Bell and Lister are making scientific discoveries and opening up an entirely new world with the telephone and antisepsis to prevent germs from wreaking havoc on medical patients. Both face a skeptical public and both prove up the challenges they face. 

Guiteau, finally convinced that God has called him to kill the new presidents when his requests for patronage jobs go unheeded, believes he has found his calling for greatness. He shoots the unprotected leader, leaving him alive but now under the care of Dr. Bliss. Having been rebuffed earlier in his medical career, and having such an important patient, leads Bliss to reject the new-fangled germ theory. Wholly incorrect about the position of the bullet in the body of Garfield, Bliss and many other doctors probe the wound with ungloved, unwashed hands. 

Bell, remembering the noise his telephone lines emitted when near metal, determines to build the first metal detector in order to find the bullet lodged in Garfield. He races against time as Garfield grows progressively worse from the infection introduced by Bliss and the others. Although his machine works, it proves fruitless on the president because Bliss only allows Bell to scan the location in which he wrongly assumes the bullet to be. 

For the two months that Garfield suffers horribly, Vice President Arthur wills himself to be better than he has been. He breaks all ties with Conkling and the spoils system. He sees in Garfield a much better man than he has ever been and desperately hopes not to have to fill the shoes of such a great and beloved leader. 

Guiteau, convinced that when Arthur becomes president he will lavish Guiteau with gratitude, sits in a jail in which even the guards try to kill him. He clings to the notion that at any time, the Republicans will come to his rescue and praise him as a hero.

Finally, Garfield dies, and the nation plunges into grief. At the autopsy, it becomes immediately clear that Dr. Bliss and his ministrations are the cause the death. The hole, bored into Garfield’s back, not by a bullet, but by the doctor’s fingers became horribly infected, leading to sepsis throughout Garfield’s entire body. Nevertheless, it is Guiteau that will pay with his life. Bliss, never believing he erred and rejecting the compensation offered by Congress as insultingly little, lives the rest of his life in ignominy. 

The only silver lining to this tragedy is that upon Arthur’s ascendency to the presidency, he finally does away with the patronage system, replacing it with the civil service system we have today. No longer would government jobs be allocated based on political payback, but only according to merit. Garfield’s death made Arthur a better man.

Knowing very little about Garfield, other than the fact that he was president, this book introduced me to a great man. Since he was a devout Christian, I look forward to meeting him one day. 

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