Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Short Presidency

I often wonder what James Garfield, America's 20th president, might have accomplished if he hadn't been shot about four months after taking office — and died of his wounds two months later.

Garfield, who died 129 years ago on this day, had a mere 200 days as president — only William Henry Harrison's one–month presidency was shorter — and nearly 40% of that time was spent in bed with the gunshot wound that ultimately killed him.

But he showed so much promise.

He wasn't a Rhodes scholar, the way Bill Clinton was. In fact, his academic career appears — to 21st century eyes, at least — a bit sparse. He attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (which later became Hiram College) and graduated with honors from Williams College — where he was regarded as an excellent student in everything (except chemistry).

Did you realize that, not only did he know both Latin and Greek, but he was a professor of both at Hiram College for a time? He also was ambidextrous — and he could use that particular talent to write both languages simultaneously. Well, that's the story, anyway.

Relatively few modern presidents have been able to speak a second language. And even fewer have been ambidextrous. Ronald Reagan, I have heard, was born left–handed but was forced by teachers to learn to write with his right hand when he was a child. And biographer David McCullough has suggested that something similar happened to Harry Truman when he was growing up.

Truman's and Reagan's experiences probably were typical for lefthanders of their generation, and I know from my own somewhat limited experience how challenging it is to try to learn to do things with your non–dominant hand.

When I was 13, I broke my right wrist and it had to be in a cast for about eight weeks. I am right–handed and, because of the nature of the break, virtually my entire arm, from my fingers to my upper arm, had to be encased in this cast and remain locked in one position while the break healed.

Because of the way my arm was positioned, it was impossible for me to write with my right hand so, for eight weeks, I had to turn in spelling tests and any other handwritten assignments with the messiest handwriting you ever saw from the pencil of a seventh–grader.

Anyway, I can respect what Truman and Reagan apparently were forced to do, but I would classify theirs as acquired ambidexterity. Garfield, as I understand it, was left–handed by nature, but I have heard nothing that says he was forced to do things with his right hand. His type of ambidexterity appears to have been natural.

Or perhaps it was the result of the subtle influence of a person in Garfield's life when he was growing up. As I say, I am right–handed, but there are certain things that I do — or did when I was a child — with my left hand, and I have always believed it was because my father, who is left–handed, must have shown me how to do them when I was small. And I just mimicked what I saw him do.

For example, I have always used a pool cue from the left. And, although I do not own a rifle, on the occasions when I have fired a rifle, I have done so from the left.

And, when I was a child and I played kickball or kicked a football with my friends, I kicked with my left foot. I never was able to kick with my right.

So it is possible that environment played a role in whatever ambidexterity Garfield acquired.

But it does seem to me that a distinction must be drawn between acquired ambidexterity — and natural ambidexterity, in which one can move effortlessly between the two, kind of like a natural switch hitter in baseball.

And Garfield's ambidexterity, as I say, appears to have been natural.

Of course, ambidexterity is not necessarily evidence of above average intelligence. But it seems to me that, to be able to apply one's ambidexterity to one's other pursuits does require a certain amount of creativity — which does, in my experience, require a certain level of intellectual depth.

Well, whatever his ambidexterity may have said about his intelligence, Garfield had about as varied a resume as anyone who ever took the presidential oath. He was the first former college president — and, as far as I know, the only former preacher — to be president.

From what I have learned of Garfield, he was quite well read, which certainly suggests a high level of intelligence.

He was a "policy wonk" a century before the Clinton candidacy and presidency popularized the phrase. He never appears to have been bored with the minutiae of policy making.

And he seems to have been a very outgoing man, the sort who enjoys the politician's life. He was muscular and handsome, and he enjoyed good health.

Now, none of these things tell us that Garfield was unusually gifted or special, although he has been described as one of the most talented orators of his day. He appears to have been somewhat Clintonesque, actually. He was "[e]xtremely tactile," wrote historian William DeGregorio. "[H]e liked to hug and stroke friends and characteristically slung an arm around the shoulders of whomever he was talking to."

But he was unique in at least one way. In more than 200 years, he remains the only sitting member of the House to be elected president.

I'm not sure, though, if much can be learned from Garfield's experience in the House. He was there for nearly 20 years, and during that time he appears to have earned a reputation as something of a waffler. He seems to have been far too concerned with making everyone happy — and, as a result, made relatively few people happy.

That, too, may seem somewhat Clintonesque, although, in an odd kind of way, Garfield seems to have managed to combine the qualities of both Clinton and the man he defeated in 1992, former President George H.W. Bush.

DeGregorio writes that (in true Clinton fashion) "he was most ambitious," but (like Bush) he was modest and disinclined to self–promotion.

"I so much despise a man who blows his own horn," Garfield reportedly said, "that I go to the extreme of not demanding what is justly my due."

But if his pre–presidential career suggested an indecisive presidency, that was not what came across after Garfield took office — certainly by modern standards.

One of the earliest tasks — and perhaps the most crucial — of a new president in the 19th century was that of making political appointments, and the federal system was fraught with corruption. By the time Garfield took office, there was a burgeoning movement for civil service reform in the land, and it was against that backdrop that Garfield made his stand against a power broker from his own party, Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York.

Conkling felt it was his responsibility to appoint the chief collector for the Port of New York because he was the state's senior senator. And, traditionally, it was something that the state's senator handled, even though it seems brazenly corrupt today — especially the way Conkling doled out patronage.

To put this in a context that 21st century people might understand, it would be comparable to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb claiming that, because the Pentagon sits on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, he, as Virginia's senior senator, should appoint the secretary of Defense.

As I say, it seems brazenly corrupt today, but it was a pretty common procedure at that time. It was covered by the principle of "senatorial courtesy," which is still observed to a certain extent but not as widely as it was then, in no small part because of Garfield.

Garfield decided to challenge the practice of a spoils system by appointing one of Conkling's political rivals chief collector. Conkling and his senatorial colleague from New York both resigned in protest, only to discover that the state's Republican Party was not going to support them against the president, and Garfield had struck a blow for civil service reform.

It might be obvious, given his background as a college president and a preacher, that Garfield took an extremely unusual route to the presidency.

As a young man, Garfield fought for the North in the Civil War, achieving the rank of major general. He earned a certain amount of notoriety for that, but it hardly served as his launch pad into presidential politics. Instead, it launched him into 18 years of service in the House of Representatives.

Then, fate intervened in 1880, and Garfield became the Republicans' compromise choice when 35 ballots failed to produce a presidential nominee.

One of the candidates for the nomination that year was former President Ulysses S. Grant. In fact, Conkling had been the leader of the movement to nominate Grant (who had been president from 1869–1877) for an unprecedented third term. But Grant deadlocked with James G. Blaine and John Sherman, and the delegates turned to the dark horse Garfield.

In the general election, Garfield defeated another former Union commander, Winfield Hancock, becoming one of the youngest men (48 on Election Day) to win the presidency.

The men who originally sought the nomination that became Garfield's did not have kind things to say about him, either while he was president ("Garfield ... is not possessed of the backbone of an angle–worm," said Grant) or more than a decade after his death ("His will power was not equal to his personal magnetism," wrote Sherman in 1895. "He easily changed his mind and honestly veered from one impulse to another").

In his inaugural address, Garfield spoke of civil service reform, and he can be said to have fired the first real shot of that revolt in his skirmish with Conkling. Actual reform, however, was ultimately achieved by his successor, Chester Arthur — although it was done, in large part, as a tribute to Garfield.

He might have been remembered in the history books as a crusader against corruption, but after only four months in office, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled and mentally unbalanced office seeker. And, instead of being recognized for the influence he could have had on American life, he is often regarded as a footnote, an oddity.

It has been suggested by some that Garfield could have survived his wound if it hadn't been for inadequate medical care.

"At least a dozen medical experts probed the president's wound, often with unsterilized metal instruments or bare hands, as was common at the time," wrote Amanda Schaffer of the New York Times in 2006. "Historians agree that massive infection, which resulted from unsterile practices, contributed to Garfield's death."

What might have been?

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