Friday, February 5, 2016

President Garfield on PBS

I watched most of, except for the first 20 minutes or so, the Murder of A President, the biography of James Garfield on PBS's American Experience earlier this week. It was a well-produced documentary with dramatic representations of Garfield as President, his wife, his assassin, and his doctor. Garfield served only four months of his term of office. He was a Republican president who wanted to fight the corruption of elected officials in the Federal Government and to provide "equal opportunity" to all citizens, including the recently freed slaves. The documentary tries to build up Garfield's presidency as a lost chance, although the viewer is given little evidence of exactly what Garfield planned to do to facilitate "equal opportunity" for citizens of the U.S.A. His fight against corruption in office, the constant quid pro quo elected officials demanded for themselves and their unelected followers in the civil service, is much clearer, although again he did not have much chance to effect much change because of the attempted assassination by Charles Guiteau, aided and abetted by the medical ineptitude of Doctor Willard Bliss, who introduced infection into the non-fatal wounds and hindered Garfield's immune system.

Although other authorities are included, much of the program was based upon Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, which I read a few years ago. Millard tells Garfield's life story--and his assassin's, poor mad and unstable Guiteau, while interweaving the stories of Alexander Graham Bell, Vice President Chester Arthur, Senator Roscoe Conkling, Doctor Joseph Lister, and others, including Garfield's wife Lucretia.

The dramatic scenes are mostly well-done: Shuler Hensley, the actor playing Garfield seems to represent him well. He is confident, open, genial, and resolute. The actress Kathryn Erbe played his wife, displaying great love and heartbroken mourning at his suffering and death. I was sorry that Will Janowitz, who portrayed the mad Guiteau, did not have the opportunity to recite Guiteau's poem "I Am Going to the Lordy" on the gallows.

The wrap-up after Garfield's death was rather rushed and the documentary did not follow up as extensively as the book on the lives of the survivors. It does note that Chester Arthur frees himself of the influence of Conkling to reform the civil service of the federal government, but the program leaves out entirely the mysterious female correspondent who urged Arthur to become a better man.

As the transcript shows, however, it's the platitudes at the end--that try to present Garfield as a great change-agent who just didn't get the chance to make his impact--that weaken the overall effect of the program:

Narrator: With Chester Arthur in the White House, the wheels of government began turning again. Life went on across the country, but many Americans were haunted by a sense of loss. For laborers, field hands, immigrants, settlers, for everyone hoping to rise through hard work, James Garfield had embodied the American dream, a dream that was being obscured by the strife and divisions of the Gilded Age. In an era shot through with cynicism and corruption, he had dared to summon once again the better angels of their natures.

Heather Cox Richardson, Historian: Garfield would come to represent that vision for which the Union had fought. Garfield believed that everybody should have equality of opportunity and that the government should help them get that. And that included black men as well as white men. With the assassination of Garfield, that dream -- the dream for which the Union had fought -- that vision died.

Todd Arrington, Garfield National Historic Site: There's this great sense that Garfield represented lost potential. There's no question that Garfield could have been a great president.

Candice Millard, Author,
Destiny of the Republic: He'd been incredibly kind and just and courageous. Garfield for even a short time raised our sights and made us more tolerant and more open-minded.

The documentary needed another 30 minutes to prove those rather anodyne but far-reaching declarations.

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