Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not that Garfield

now finished: Garfield by Allan Peskin

Not bad, Allan Peskin, not bad.  This President James A. Garfield of ours was an interesting character. While he did not catapult himself into the ranks of my favorites (20 presidents into my project, my top four are James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and Rutherford B. Hayes), Garfield did manage to remind me a lot of - myself. Not necessarily in a good way.

Some of it was just factual...he felt out of place as a youngster at times, and his literary aspirations occasionally seemed mismatched with his political aspirations, and he went to a religious academy to get out and do SOMEthing SOMEwhere in the world as a teenager...but Garfield held onto his religious devotion much longer than I held onto mine (i.e., his life). Also, he put work off until the last minute and thrived under deadline pressure, and sometimes he was kind of a jerk to people. But he meant well.

As for differences between us, he actually was  a wonderful orator, but labored over writing, so we're opposites there. And he really enjoyed being a soldier. I for one am really looking forward to getting out of this stretch of presidents who fought in the Civil War because each prez bio is taking me through the same battles, over and over and over, as I see the war through yet another prism. A Civil War buff I ain't.

The bio was well written for the most part, although this one had some weird editorial and grammatical things that seemed slightly off at a few points, like a date or sentence had been inserted from some other thought process that contradicted the page before. Mostly, though, it presented the mass of information very well, and it once again had really interesting discoveries lurking in the endnotes, such as the fact that in a speech called "The Currency" (Garfield was a freak about greenbacks and being anti-inflation), he used the term "industrial revolution," apparently 13 years before it was supposedly coined, according to the author of this bio.

Garfield was often disgusted by people who took power in the Republican party. (Another similarity between us!)  He said: "The war has brought to the surface of National politics many men who are neither fitted in character, nor ability, to be leaders of public thought or representative of the true men of the country."  (pp. 329-330)  Although he didn't hate Ulysses Grant, he did think Grant's presidency failed and really had negative effects on the Republican party. Then again, Garfield was totally wrapped up in the politics and ideas of James G. Blaine, whereas other people were on Roscoe Conkling's side (such as Garfield's VP, Chester A. Arthur), and Conkling was crazy, but Blaine was a little crazy, too, and it's hard to say if anyone was actually justified in his actions.


The most interesting parts of this book, hands down, were the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago where Garfield surprisingly got the nomination -- a drunken fest of backroom shenanigans! -- and the story of Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau. (I feel sorry for the guy -- his messy, deranged upbringing is clearly what made him a pitiful crazy man capable of taking out a president "for the good of the country.")  Anyway, so after being shot Garfield suffered for quite a while and died, as all my presidents do at the end of the prez bios. If I continue along this project at a good clip, I just might get to Carter,Bush, Clinton and Obama before they go. (I still haven't decided if the Usurping Decider gets to participate in my project, or if I should stick to just presidents.) 

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