Review: Author looks back at forgotten president
“Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” (Doubleday), by Candice Millard
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Author Candice Millard looks back at a forgotten time and president and brings the era and people involved to vivid life in “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.”
This is the story of James Garfield, who never sought the presidency but became the Republican nominee in 1880. After his election, Garfield had the time-consuming task of dealing with office seekers, who lined up around the block hoping that he would appoint them to a government job.
The White House was accessible to the public at that time, so it was common for a person to walk in and see the president. One familiar person was Charles Guiteau, who was frequently at the White House because he was expecting an ambassador appointment. As he was repeatedly put off, the madness in his mind grew.
Millard takes the reader on a compelling fly on-the-wall journey with these two men until that fateful day in a train station when Guiteau shot Garfield. The president died 11 weeks later, on Sept. 19, 1881, a little more than six months after taking office.
The entire story of Garfield and Guiteau reads like a fictional tragedy, made more depressing because everything actually happened. Guiteau’s stalker tendencies and the botched medical care that Garfield received after the shooting are both shocking and unbelievable.
“Destiny of the Republic” also introduces Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, into the story. Bell worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of locating the bullet inside Garfield’s body.
Millard takes all of these elements in a forgotten period of history and turns them into living and breathing things. The writing immerses readers into the period, making them feel as though they are living at that time.
Comparisons to Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” are justified, but “Destiny of the Republic” is better.
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