Candice Millard talks about "Destiny of the Republic"
Candice Millard calls assassinated US President James Garfield a "very admirable" person whose death was "a real loss to the nation."
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A. As someone who has long loved history and reads a lot of history, especially when you get a distance like 130 years, these people can seem almost mythical and you need something tangible to make them real. I had a moment in the Library of Congress among the presidential papers. I opened a folder and there was an envelope in it. The front of the envelope was facing the table, so I didn’t know what was in it. I opened it and out spilled all this hair. I turned the envelop over and it says “Clipped from President Garfield’s head on his deathbed.” It’s blond hair that looks like you could have cut it from your child’s head. It made him so real and so immediate. This was a real person. This was a father and a husband and a man who died at 49 with so much promise. To me, that was a really moving moment.Skip to next paragraph
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Q. You make in interesting comparison between Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, which further split an already badly divided country, and Garfield’s 16 years later, which united the country like never before.
A. With the Lincoln assassination, the South didn’t feel it could mourn along with the North. But Garfield was beloved by all the American people. He was trusted and respected by North and South, by freed slaves and former slave owners. Also by pioneers, which his parents had been, and by immigrants. They saw in this man his incredible rise from poverty and it gave them hope. He was an interesting combination of one of their own, but also someone who embodied all their hopes and dreams.
Q. All your chapters but one begin with a quote from Garfield. He was quite the orator. Were the quotes all from his speeches?
A. They’re all from speeches. Garfield was very eloquent and I found so many of the things he said so prescient. He almost seemed to see into the future. There were all these things that I had hoped to get into the book. And I knew going into this that I would have to fight, not just that people didn’t know Garfield, but that people thought they knew him and thought he was boring and thought there was nothing interesting to say about him. So I started the chapters with quotations from Garfield to give a quick, easy way to begin to understand, not just his eloquence, but his wisdom and his broadmindedness and his kindness.
Q. Your first book, River of Doubt, was a bestseller. Did that surprise you?
A. Yes, it was a surprise. It’s Theodore Roosevelt and I knew there is an insatiable interest in him. But you never know what’s going to happen and certainly being a first-time writer I was surprised. And very happy. It meant I can keep doing work that I really love.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I can’t talk about it in detail, but I do have a contract and the book is going to be about Winston Churchill.
Q. Do you ever see yourself writing a full biography?
A. Not really. I love to read biographies, but what interests me are these smaller stories that, I hope, are illuminating about that person’s character and that moment in time. So I think that’s what I’ll continue to do.
David Conrads is a frequent Monitor contributor.