THE DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC

A TALE OF MADNESS, MEDICINE, AND THE MURDER OF A PRESIDENT

The shocking shooting and the painful, lingering death of the 20th president.

“Killed by a disappointed office seeker.” Thus most history texts backhand the self-made James Garfield (1831–1881), notwithstanding his distinguished career as a college professor, lawyer, Civil War general, exceptional orator, congressman and all too briefly president. Millard follows up her impressive debut (The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, 2005) by colorfully unpacking this summary dismissal, demonstrating the power of expert storytelling to wonderfully animate even the simplest facts. As she builds to the president’s fatal encounter with his assassin, she details the intra-party struggle among Republicans that led to Garfield’s surprise 1880 nomination. The Stalwarts, worshippers of Grant, defenders of the notorious spoils system, battled the Half-Breeds, reformers who took direction from Senators John Sherman and James G. Blaine. The scheming, delusional Charles J. Guiteau, failed author, lawyer and evangelist, listened to no one, except perhaps the voices in his head assuring him he was an important political player, instrumental in Garfield’s election and deserving of the consulship to Paris. After repeated rebuffs, he determined that only “removing the president” would allow a grateful Vice President Chester A. Arthur to reward him. During the nearly three excruciating months Garfield lay dying, Alexander Graham Bell desperately scrambled to perfect his induction balance (a metal detector) in time to locate the lead bullet lodged in the stricken president’s back. Meanwhile, Garfield’s medical team persistently failed to observe British surgeon Joseph Lister’s methods of antisepsis—the American medical establishment rejected the idea of invisible germs as ridiculous—a neglect that almost surely killed the president. Moving set pieces—the  1876 U.S. Centennial Exhibition which Garfield attended and where both Lister and Bell presented, the deadlocked Republican Convention, the steamship explosion that almost killed Guiteau, the White House death watch—and sharply etched sketches of Blaine, the overwhelmed Arthur and larger portraits of the truly impressive Garfield and the thoroughly insane Guiteau make for compulsive reading.

Superb American history.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-385-52626-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2011

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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