David Frum

02.23.13

Why Can't Our Politics Improve Like Our Medicine?

James A. Garfield has always been for me one of the great might-have-beens of American history: the most substantial personality to hold the presidency between Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, and the only one of the post Civil War presidents to care very much about the conditions of the freed slaves. His 1881 inaugural address offers the most full-throated defense of black political equality that would be heard from any president until after World War II. Garfield contemplated a federal support for Northern-style public schooling for Southern children, white and black.

Suppose he had served a full term or - better - two? Would history have changed? Perhaps not. The white South implacably opposed any federal action in aid of the freed slaves. Whites in the north had lost their stomach for Reconstruction. Federal courts grimly sabotaged any federal intervention on behalf of Southern blacks. Peacetime presidents wielded little power in the 19th century, and factional disputes within the Republican party weakened the presidency even further.

But … even weakened, presidents still counted. They exercised patronage and, after all, they appointed the judges. So: maybe. We can't know.

But here's what we can't know - and what I didn't know - the Garfield "might have been" is much more a "should have been." As Candice Millard observes in her sparkling medical history, Destiny of the Republic, a modern president struck by an equivalent wound as that which struck Garfield on July 2, 1881, would return to work within the week. Garfield was shot by a madman named Charles Guiteau, but he was killed by his doctors.

In the late 1860s, the English doctor Joseph Lister developed the theory that antiseptic surgery could prevent infection of wounds. By 1881, his methods had spread through British medicine. Precisely because they were British, however, they were resisted by American doctors - and especially by the egomaniac doctor who grabbed charge of Garfield's case.

Garfield was shot inside a railway station in Washington. He was laid on the floor atop a blood-soaked mattresses. Doctors probed inside the wound with unwashed, ungloved fingers. Throughout his 11 weeks of agonizing lingering, Garfield was poked, jabbed, and incised, every time by doctors who regarded the idea of "germs" as laughable superstition. How could a big strong man be laid low by invisible tiny particles? Absurd!

Garfield died of the infections his doctors introduced into him, dropping 80 pounds of weight through the ordeal and suffering horribly from dehydration. He was succeeded by the thoroughly mediocre Chester Arthur on September 19, 1881.

An interesting footnote to history: Garfield appointed as his secretary of war the only surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln. Robert Todd accompanied Garfield to the train station on July 2, and was thus present on the scene of the second presidential assassination in U.S. history. By bizarre coincidence, Robert Todd also happened to be nearby when William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. The story goes that thenceforward Lincoln refused all further invitations until his death in 1928.

But even this self-denying ordinance did not avert fate. In 1910, New York mayor William Gaynor was shot by a discharged city employee. (The shooting was not immediately fatal, but Gaynor died of complications three years later.) And guess who was right there? Exactly. One further Lincoln coincidence: Robert Todd served as general counsel to the Pullman sleeping car company and became company president in 1897, after the death of the founder, George Pullman. The son of the Great Emancipator was notoriously hostile to pleas from black Americans to integrate the service on his cars. Pullman cars instead became a symbol of segregation, with blacks working only as porters, with the more highly paid job of conductors reserved for whites, and their exclusively white clientele.

Millard does an outstanding job of bringing vividly to life not only the personalities of Garfield, Guiteau, the doctors who bungled the case, and the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was then living in Washington and who was inspired by the case to devise the world's first metal detector - sadly completed too late to be of use. She also nicely and amusingly recreates the complex party politics of the day.

Most thought-provoking for me, however, in this should-have-been story is the moral at the end. Garfield's death struck an emotional chord in American life not seen since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Americans demanded some kind of action, and the action that was offered by President Arthur was a concession to the idea of civil service reform.

Guiteau was insane, but his insanity had a motive: anger at the rejection of his pleas to be appointed to an official position. (Guiteau had his eye on the ambassadorship to France.) Two years after Garfield's death, President Arthur signed the Pendleton Act, the law commencing the long transition from a bureaucracy hired by patronage to one run on civil service principles. The process begun in 1883 would take nearly half a century to complete, and some might say it is not completed yet: Even now, the president of the United States dispenses an estimated 10,000 jobs, vastly more than are controlled by any other executive in the democratic world.

We live now in a very different world from the late 19th century, and in most respects, a much better world. Yet there is one contrast not to the favor of the present-day: the Americans of 1883 blamed patronage for Garfield's murder and took action, even if only a provisional action, to reduce that social ill. Their 21st century successors seem much less able to act decisively against the causes that enable the violence of our time. Our medicine has so dramatically improved since the primitive era so well described by Candice Millard's lively book. Politics, it seems, has not made anything like equal progress.