20th U.S. President James A. Garfield needed a better publicist.
If he had one, he would have known that to be remembered in the history books, you have to be the first person in history to actually do something and not to simply repeat what has gone on before.
A brief look at the life of Garfield, who died this week in 1881 from an assassin’s bullet, is almost like glimpsing a plan actively set in motion to remain in obscurity.
The pattern began early. He was one of eight men from Ohio to make it to the presidency, and like many before him, he was born in a log cabin. He became a lawyer (lots of those), and served in the Civil War (as did at least four other presidents). Although deeply religious, he was implicated in a financial scandal while a congressman, and was once caught cheating on his wife (nothing new there). He was the fifth man named James to become president and sixteen years after the murder of Abraham Lincoln, he had the sad distinction of becoming the second president to be assassinated. He had only served 200 days in office at the time of his death, which at least gave him the distinction of having the shortest presidential administration ever, right? Nope. William Henry Harrison’s stewardship lasted only a month.
His administration was uneventful, which was hardly his fault, given that it only lasted a little over six months. He was heading off to a vacation on the Jersey shore when he was shot at a Washington, DC train station by a crazed office and publicity seeker named Charles Guiteau.
Garfield could have used better doctors as well.
Modern historians believe that he would have survived had his physicians not given him blood poisoning from probing his wounds with unsterilized fingers and instruments. His physician Dr. Bliss (who curiously had the first name Doctor, thereby being Dr. Doctor Bliss) actually ruptured Garfield’s liver examining the wound. Guiteau, with some justification, claimed in court that “the doctors killed Garfield. I only shot him.” Garfield’s condition steadily worsened, and he died two and a half months after the shooting.
While Garfield seemingly planned for obscurity, Guiteau’s reach was for immortality. He had demanded an embassy post in Paris, and when his request was denied he retaliated by shooting the president. He relished in the attention that the murder gave him and regretted only that he didn’t use a nicer gun since it would have made a prettier museum exhibit. He truly believed that the nation was grateful for what he had done, and planned to run for president himself after he was acquitted. He was found guilty and was hanged a year after the shooting.
Had I had been Garfield’s publicist, I would have made sure that the public knew there was truly an individual under that Gilded Age presidential beard.
And what was unique about Garfield? He was the only president to be ambidextrous.
(I know it’s not a lot, but some guys just don’t give you much to work with.)