Monday, July 25, 2011

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield
by Kenneth Ackerman
Carroll & Graf, 551 pages.

A book that should be required reading for anyone aspiring to a life in politics, Dark Horse is a surprisingly engaging historical epic that reads like a novel even as it delves into an under-appreciated turning point in 19th century Americana. Set in the stormy political years of 1880 - 1881, the book charts the rise of President James Garfield and sets about proving the thesis that his death by an assassin's bullet was as much a result of the era's political atmosphere as it was the assassin's own shattered ideals. If this idea sounds familiar, it should; it was the same one put forth this year after Jared Loughner's shooting spree in Arizona and it's just started again in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik's shootings in Norway: in both cases, a charged political atmosphere prompted disturbed people to take disturbing action. And this is just one of the eerie points of relevance between Dark Horse and the modern day: as we gear up for the 2012 Presidential election and the Republican National Convention, Mr. Ackerman's detailed portrayal of the 1880 convention - and the backroom deals that went along with it - will be of special interest.

Thanks to exhaustive use of personal journals, letters and other papers, Mr. Ackerman is able to give us the thoughts and opinions of the era's many political players; but he wisely centres his book around four main characters: Garfield himself, Senate boss Roscoe Conkling, vice-president Chester Arthur and Secretary of State James Blaine. Mr. Ackerman's narrative portrays the politics of 1880 - 1881 as being largely determined by an age old feud between Blaine and Conkling, which led to a split in the Republican party that dominated both the 1880 convention, the election campaign and Garfield's brief four month campaign. He also shows how the well oiled patronage machine influenced assassin Charles Guiteau and led him to Washington to seek a consulship to France. Mr. Ackerman never defends Guiteau, but he does let us into his fractured mind - Guiteau was so disconnected from reality that he thought politicians were his friends and that General Sherman, who he had served under during the Civil War, would storm the jail where he was held after the assassination.

Five hundred pages of 19th century backroom deals may not sound like good summer reading, but Mr. Ackerman skillfully constructs the narrative, producing tension as he gradually brings us closer and closer to the fateful day when Garfield was shot (he also takes us through the subsequent summer, where the bungling of doctors led to Garfield's death).  Most engaging is the depiction of Roscoe Conkling, a now forgotten political figure who, at one point, was one of the most powerful men in American politics. Conkling's rise and fall is the stuff of Greek tragedy - he is eventually brought down by his own pride and his refusal to compromise over an issue of appointment (Garfield wanted to give a cushy job to William Robertson, a Conkling foe). Further reading will determine whether this is an accurate description of events; but much of it is in the public record and, given Mr. Ackerman's exhaustive research, I'm tempted to think that it's a far assessment of what occurred.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart implied that of all the assassinated presidents, it's McKinley who is the most under-appreciated (Stewart was talking to Scott Miller, author of The President and the Assassin). I don't often disagree with Stewart, but I will here: both Garfield and Arthur are largely considered caretaker presidents, overshadowed by the social movements of their day: the rise of industry, the westward expansion and the reformers who preached prohibition, women's rights and political change. Mr. Ackerman, though, brings these politicians to the forefront and presents them both as presidents who deserve to be remembered. Like the others, Garfield can be easily lionized a president with destroyed potential while Arthur can be appreciated as a man who left a legacy of civil service reform - not to mention an end to the split in the Republican party.

Further, there is much that remains relevant in Dark Horse - the political machine never stop and it's good to remember that every candidate is there for a wide variety of reasons, not all of which has to do with their abilities. And, as mentioned above, Mr. Ackerman paints an eerie portrait of an era which created a charged political atmosphere that led directly to a heinous act - something which has been repeated again and again in the many years that have passed since the giants of the Gilded Age walked the earth.

Related Books:
"Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in his Own Right" by John Groff
"Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur" by Thomas Reeeves
"Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character" by Alyn Brodsky

"Benjamin Harrison" by Charles W. Calhoun

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