Saturday, February 6, 2016

Doc Watch: The American Experience - Murder of a President (2016, PBS Doc)

James A. Garfield.  He wore his beard honestly.


I don't watch as much of American Experience as I once did.  I actually go to sleep from time to time these days, so that leaves less time watching TV, I guess.  But when I heard The American Experience, PBS's long running documentary series on key events in American history, was making a doc based on Candice Millard's book, Destiny of the Republic (I believe suggested to me by Picky Girl), I had to check it out.

This week's episode, Murder of a President, covers the assassination of President James Garfield.

Yes, it's a case of "the book was better than the movie", but there was never any way a 2 hour doc was going to convey all the story Millard was able to get on the page.  And, while the doc does try to capture the true tragedy of the murder, I didn't feel hollowed out in the same way that I did by the time I finished Millard's book.  In fact, I teared up a few times getting through the book. Pretty remarkable for a non-fiction accounting of a President nobody talks about anymore.

Nonetheless, the doc is terrific and does a good job of understanding and translating Millard's work, and that of other historians and archivists detailing the story.  You can watch it now on the PBS website.  


To understand the importance of Garfield, you have to imagine the current splits going on in both parties between what is seen as insider and outsider politicos, and the corruption inherent in insider politics kicked up to levels we talk about in hyperbole but which were very much a real issue for a long time in American politics and the constant struggle of the post-Lincoln Republican Party.  Throw in the folks wanting to clean house and overturn the applecart, and you had two sides of the same party who were utterly at odds.

For all the talk about Lincoln coming from humble roots, Garfield likewise had risen up from nothing, getting into politics as a young man, becoming a general in Union Army until elected a Rep from Ohio.  At the 1880 Republican Convention (this is before primaries), Garfield gave a speech supporting his preferred candidate, talking about what the election was really about, and at the conclusion called for "who can do this?" and was taken a bit aback when someone shouted "Garfield!".  He was the candidate who represented why the two factions shared a roof to begin with, and was truly interested in government for the betterment of all.  Bizarrely, this got him elected.

Unfortunately, only a few months into his presidency, a mad man named Charles Guiteau, who had been hanging around during the election, was surprised to find he was not appointed as Consul to Paris, and beleieved God was telling him to now assassinate Garfield so Chester A. Arthur (otherwise sure to go down as an otherwise utterly forgettable Veep) could take the White House.

The doc captures not just the drama of Garfield's ascendancy, but the tragedy of the shooting and subsequent weeks as Garfield's medical care was mismanaged by a doctor who cimply could not let his ego get out of the way of best serving his patient, turning away professional help from doctors and Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the metal detector to look for the bullet in Garfield's body.

Millard herself appears quite a bit as an interview subject, and she's held up as the central voice telling the story and understanding the players, but others do appear and lend perspective.

As I don't expect anyone to commit to reading a several hundred page book on Garfield, I would pitch the documentary to at least understand this President and the world of 1880 a great deal better.  In a time of huge social upheaval, he could have been a stabilizing force, ballast in the White House.  In the denouement, Chester A. Arthur's abandonment of his factions ideals to pursue Garfield's agenda is almost a tear jerker, a man turning to make a decision for the just instead of robbin the cookie jar the moment he had the chance.

Highly recommended.

2 comments:

Jake Shore said...

Can't wait to read this book. I heard a long radio interview with Millard where she discussed the book. Garfield was a pretty impressive fellow. Inspires a lot of what if?s.

Ryan Steans said...

I may or may not have gotten a bit choked up during the pages describing Garfield's final voyage.