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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Guiteau’

A Monument to the Politically Crazy

Somewhere in Mentor, Ohio, sits the well-kept home of our 20th President, James A. Garfield. Few Americans know anything about James Garfield, or perhaps their only knowledge of this man is through the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song:

Mr. Garfield been shot down shot down shot down

Mr. Garfield been shot down low

President Garfield was assassinated by spurned office-seeker and political nutbag, Charles Guiteau, on July 2nd, 1881, a mere 160 days after his inauguration. As far as assassinated Presidents goes, Garfield is simply one of four, an afterthought on a list that also contains one great (Abraham Lincoln) and one beloved (John F. Kennedy).

Few remember James Garfield, but I think the story of Garfield is tremendously valid today, and should be read and understood by anyone and everyone with a political leaning, whether left or right, whether they follow Fox News or the Huffington Post or even the Onion. The story of President Garfield is the story of dangerous political extremism.

Assassination of President Grant (www.authentichistory.com)

Anatomy of an Assassin

If I was to ask a panel of experts or non-experts, “what makes a presidential assassin”, I’m sure the bulk of them would say, in language academic or mundane, “they’re crazy”. By and large, anyone who would assassinate POTUS would have to be crazy. When you think about it, there’s not really a lot of point to it: our system of government isn’t particularly susceptible to change or overthrow in that manner. Between our tripartite government, our well-defined system of presidential succession, our deeply entrenched two-party politics, and the ponderous inertia of a democracy, the assassination of our President won’t really make much of a difference, other than to put the nation in a state of mourning. It could even steel our resolve to “stay the course” more than simply waiting until the next election to instigate change.

So if there’s no value in assassinating the president, then why do it? Well, John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in retaliation for the Confederate loss in the Civil War, and the abolishment of the institution of slavery. Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot William McKinley, was a turn-of-the-century anarchist inspired by a slew of assassinations in Europe. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist sympathizer (or maybe a patsy for the mob, or for the FBI, or by grey aliens, or who-knows-what). Slavery. Anarchy. Communism. Heavy, deeply philosophical ideas. Crazy, but deep crazy.

Charlie Guiteau? Charlie Guiteau killed James Garfield because his particular wing of the GOP (the Stalwarts) lost to Garfield in the Republican convention of 1880.

Um, seriously? That’s shallow crazy right there.

Charlie Guiteau (wikipedia)

The Drudgery Grudgery of Politics

There is a long, complicated story surrounding the 1880 Republican Convention. To summarize, there were two favorites. The Stalwarts stood behind former President Ulysses S Grant, and the Half-Breeds stood behind Senator James Blaine of Maine. During the convention (a weird affair, like all other 18th century conventions), dark-horse  James Garfield — a compromise candidate offered when neither favorite carried a majority — surprisingly won the nomination. He would then go on to defeat Democrat William Hancock in the general election.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, but it would probably bore you to tears. Which is kinda the point: all these inner workings of the two-party system, all the legerdemain cast by the party machines, it’s all fairly petty stuff. It’s all about favoritism, and patronage, and civil service, and all this other nonsense. None of it is “deep”, none of it is particularly soul-renching. None of it is, even in a madman’s eyes, cause for assassination! Unless, of course, you’re a person with the shallowness of purpose as Charlie Guiteau.

Political shallowness is exactly the point, and hence the subtitle of this post, “A Monument to the Politically Crazy”. Garfield was killed for no reason other than some whackjob took offense over a political process. There was no other reason! Sure, Guiteau also felt slighted for not getting the patronage job he wanted, but he also knew killing the president would result in him being hanged! There was no purpose to it, whatsoever. Just the total waste of a life, and the lost potential of a President. I think Garfield was on his way to being a very good President when he was shot, but we’ll never know that now.

Soccer Riot or Election Day? (http://www.thetimes.co.uk)

Crazy: Then and Now

Charlie Guiteau was a political nut-job. He was so fixated on his own faction that he took it upon himself to murder a president. He wasn’t fixated on a cause, but on a team. How shallow is that? But let’s look at this madness: this is exactly the type of bent most politically-minded Americans have today! How many people only vote for their own political party? How much punditry on 24-hour cable news, talk radio, or the blogosphere is really “our team is great, the other team sucks”? Listen carefully to what goes on in today’s popular media outlets, you’ll see this to be true most of the time. We are all being trained to be Charlie Guiteaus: not concerned with the facts or philosophies of governance, but wholly concerned about our “team” beating the other “team”?

None of this is good, none of this is wise. We need to stop playing team politics, and start paying real attention to real issues and the real results of our decisions, before we all end up crazy like Charlie Guiteau.

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Links:

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

How Our Partisan Loyalties Are Driving Polarization

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield <– an excellent book and my key source for this post.

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