What I've been reading
You know who Sarah Vowell is, even if you've never seen her. She was the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles, and she really nailed it. I've seen her a few times on The Daily Show, and she's as deadpan as you might expect. She's kind of the stereotypical Goth chick - at one point in this book, she lists her phobias - heights, water, driving (she doesn't have a license), snakes roller coasters, Children of the Corn - as well as her allergies - peanuts, wheat, pet dander, springtime. Yes, she's poking fun at herself, but if you look up "Emily Dickinson" in the dictionary, you might see Sarah Vowell's picture.
I bring this up because this very humorous and interesting book, in which Vowell goes on a trek to discover all she can about three presidents - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley - who were assassinated and the men who killed them. You might expect, as an ultra-liberal, that Vowell will be slightly un-American, but she's not - she's definitely and defiantly anti-Bush (she refuses to write his name, calling him "the current president" because it's more hopeful), but like a lot of smart people, she tries to find the good in the country while admitting that there are plenty of things wrong with it. In going back and looking at not only the presidents, but trying to figure out why anyone would take the extreme position of killing them. She also ties some of what happened in the past into what's happening in the present, which is why history is interesting to study - something our current president might have remembered.
While Lincoln is the most exhaustively covered (his chapter is almost 100 pages long, while the other two top out in the mid-60s) and McKinley's relates most closely to the present day while starring Theodore Roosevelt in a supporting role that takes over everything else, Garfield's death is perhaps the oddest. Garfield, of course, was wounded but probably not lethally until the doctors poked around in his wounds without being hygienic about it. Nice. The politics behind Garfield's election are fascinating, as well, and Vowell does a good job explaining the post-Reconstruction back-and-forth within the Republican Party of the 1870s and '80s. She traces the current Republican Party's policies to the Compromise of 1877, when the Republicans, in order to get Rutherford B. Hayes elected, told the Democrats they would end Reconstruction. Four years later, Garfield became a compromise candidate because Hayes had the audacity to fire Chester A. Arthur, the customs collector at the New York Customs House, a hugely lucrative job that controlled by Roscoe Conkling, a powerful senator from New York who ran the Republican Party in that state. Conkling dumped Hayes and tried to bring back Ulysses S. Grant for a third term. Within the party, James Blaine of Maine led a faction that was sick of Grant. Garfield became the compromise candidate. Garfield was always at odds with Conkling, appointing a neutral man to the customs collector position and in a horrific twist of fate, Charles Guiteau killed the president because he was such a big fan of Conkling's branch of the party. In Guiteau's pocket when he shot Garfield was a letter, explaining that he did it so Chester Arthur, the vice-president, could take over and return the Republican Party back to its glorious roots. Arthur was justifiably horrified. Guiteau was a strange bird - he lived in the Oneida community in upstate New York when he was young and apparently couldn't get laid in a place devoted to free love. He wanted to be appointed ambassador to France and thought Garfield screwed him out of the position. And he was a funny man at his trial, as well, delighting the gallery with quips and whatnot. Weird.
Vowell does a fine job not only skipping back and forth between the presidents and their assassins, but also, as I've mentioned, tying events from the 19th century into events in the 21st. This is most notable when she gets to McKinley, because McKinley's "splendid little war" - the Spanish-American - is the beginning of American imperialism abroad (we'll ignore the slaughter of millions of Indians). The Spanish-American War has some eerie similarities to the current war, from the justifications for it (the Spaniards almost certainly didn't blow up the Maine, while those weapons of mass destruction Saddam had must be invisible) to the aftermath (America took over the Philippines and decided they couldn't run things without our "help," sparking a rebellion). In fact, you could argue (and Vowell does) that our problems with Cuba today are directly related to the Spanish-American War. That bastard History is intruding on our Glorious Present once again!
Vowell tries to make Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot McKinley, interesting, but even she admits he's a drab and dour figure. She does link him to Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, whose boyfriend tried to kill Henry Frick in 1892 (which is a key moment in this book) and who barely knew Czolgosz. Despite Czolgosz's claims that he worked alone, Goldman was jailed briefly as a co-conspirator, and Vowell finds it difficult to work up much sympathy for a woman who often advocated violence to elected officials in her writing while claiming to abhor it when it actually happened. Goldman's involvement, such as it was, in McKinley's death, however, led to Theodore Roosevelt and Congress passing the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1903, the first law allowing potential immigrants to be questioned about their political views. I wonder why she links the McKinley assassination to the current War on Terror™?
There's a lot to like about this book, as Vowell continually lighten the heavy topic of political assassination with humorous asides and personal stories and insight without losing the view of the big picture. She also likes to track the wonderful coincidences in history, such as the fact that Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the president, was involved in all three assassinations (and couldn't have been happy about that stigma attached to his name). Little things like that make history more fascinating and helps the big stuff more meaningful. It's a quick read but tells us a lot about where we've been and how we got to this point. And, as I've mentioned, it's a shame that more politicians don't appreciate our own history and try to learn from it. This is the kind of book that could help them. Maybe we should all buy it for our Congressman (or -woman) for Christmas. They might appreciate it.