Saturday, July 22, 2006

James A. Garfield: The slow and unnecessary death of an American president

67. James A. Garfield, Ira Rutkow. Biography, 7-18, p. 139

The most recent entry in Times Books’ American Presidents Series, Ira Rutkow’s biography of James A. Garfield, is a petite volume, even by the standards of this series. It weighs in at a tidy 139 pages.

The brevity of Rutkow’s biography is understandable considering the all-to-brief arc of Garfield’s presidency. Elected in 1880, the Ohioan was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, shot on July 2 and died two and one-half months later on September 19.

Rutkow neatly summarizes Garfield’s early years, Civil War experience and Congressional career in the first 40 pages. It takes only another 40 pages to portray the “private” Garfield and to recount the machinations that led to his nomination on the 36th ballot of the Republican convention, his subsequent election and the early days of his administration.

Nearly half the book is given over to the assassination attempt, the dismal state of Nineteenth Century American medicine and the cruel 80 days of suffering Garfield experienced before he succumbed. Rutkow makes a convincing argument that Garfield’s wound need not have been fatal, rather it was the inadequate and improper treatment he received that led to his death.

Charles Guiteau, the frustrated office-seeker who shot Garfield, even used this argument in his legal defense. “Guiteau relentlessly rehashed the case for medical mistreatment,” Rutkow writes. Guiteau admitted shooting the president, but noted that weeks after the assassination attempt a team of physicians concluded the president would recover. “Therefore, according to Guiteau’s rationale, ‘The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant.’”

In a fascinating summation, Rutkow notes that almost 100 years later, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan suffered far more serious wounds at the hands of an would-be assassin. Yet because of the advances in medical care, Reagan was on his feet within 24 hours and returned to the White House, “fully able to conduct the nation’s business,” within 11 days.

In addition to being a published author, Rutkow is a clinical professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His professional insight into Garfield’s treatment and into the state of American medicine in 1881 makes this an intriguing and exceptional read.

It is impossible to accurately appraise Garfield’s standing among American presidents; his tenure was all to brief. Rutkow observes that the 1883 passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act is a fitting memorial to Garfield, but acknowledges his accomplishments as president were few. “James Abram Garfield’s presidency,” Rutkow writes, “is reduced to a tantalizing ‘what if.’”

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