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Death of the Republic’ a fascinating look at a president

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An artist’s depiction of the assassination attempt on James Garfield. Ironically, he might have lived had physicians not attended to him, according to Candice Millard’s new book.
Chuck Twardy

The Details

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President By Candice Millard, $29
Three and a half stars

Destiny of the Republic seems a little grandiose for a book about James Garfield. If the 20th president left little mark on the nation’s history, though, it wasn’t his fault. Without really trying to, Candice Millard makes a strong argument that Garfield might have been a spectacular president. Humble, principled but tough, president almost against his will, Garfield could have accomplished much, had he not been shot four months into his presidency.

He still might have made a great president, but for medicine. As Millard points out, hundreds of Civil War veterans were walking around with bullets in their bodies, largely because they had escaped medical attention. Joseph Lister, the British physician who proved the merits of antiseptic surgery, tried to persuade American doctors, but most scoffed at the notion of invisible organisms causing infection.

So, when the deranged Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in a Washington, D.C., train station on July 2, 1881, doctors lay the wounded president on a filthy mattress and set about poking fingers into his wound. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, sent for Dr. D. Willard Bliss, who had attended his father’s death 16 years earlier. Bliss took over Garfield’s care, jealously securing his illustrious patient from the attention of all rivals.

Garfield lingered more than two months in what must have been horrid misery, his once trim and agile body slowly losing mass and filling with pus.

Among those who sought to help was Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Bell devised an “induction balance” that could detect hidden metal objects. Bell’s feverish race to perfect the implement amounts to a subplot, although it’s not clear that finding the slug would have helped. In any event, when he tried, Bliss forbade Bell to search the area where it was eventually found.

The postmortem discovery of Bliss’s errors helped usher in antiseptic surgery. And because Guiteau thought he was serving the interests of Garfield’s political rivals, the “Stalwart” wing of the Republican party, the nation turned against its leader, Roscoe Conkling. Chester Arthur, upon assuming the presidency, also rejected his onetime patron, and led the effort for civil service reform. More important, Millard asserts, the once-riven nation united in grief over Garfield.

That’s hard to buy, but Millard’s tale is still fascinating for its mix of political intrigue and medical folly.

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