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Garfield: America's most obscure president may also have been one of its best

Biographer Candice Millard talks about the courageous, independent, largely forgotten US president – James Garfield – whose term was cut short by an assassin's bullet.

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Q: Some presidential rankings don't include him because he was only in office for a few months. But those that do typically rank him toward the bottom. Is that fair?

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A: It's unavoidable. He was in office for only four months, and I think that's the reason for that.

But he was in Congress for almost 18 years. And what he accomplishes in four months is to defeat arguably the most powerful and most corrupt man in the country, Senator Roscoe Conkling, by sticking to his own ideals and believing in himself.

What makes him very rare was that he was his own man. I can't think of another presidential candidate, at least in recent times, who didn't hunger for the presidency. He didn't have presidential fever.

At the Republican National Convention, he didn't want to be a candidate but to give a nominating address for another man. He found himself thrust into this role, and never had to compromise his own values and ideals along the way. He was his own man as president, and that would have made him very powerful.

Q: The assassin, Charles Guiteau, is a fascinating character in this own right, a deranged stalker who kept pestering the White House for a job. What did you learn about him?

A: He was delusional and mentally ill. He had been for a long time, and should have not been near anyone, let alone the president.

It was a time when people could sort of slip away. His family tried to have him institutionalized, and he'd disappear. He'd move from city to city, skipping out on his bills, and being very isolated and on his own. He lived in his own foggy, deluded mind, becoming more obsessive.

He believed he would personally make Garfield president by delivering the speech he'd written, and then, through gratitude, Garfield would make him ambassador to France.

He became more obsessive and desperate. He went to the White House and Department of State every day.

Q: Why didn't Garfield have better security?

A: There were all these assassinations going on in Europe, but people believed that's because they had these monarchies. They truly did not believe this would happen again. They didn't want any distance set up between them and their leader; they thought that's something for monarchies and kings.

One night, Guiteau follows Garfield and his secretary of state all around the city. They have no protection, and Guiteau is holding a loaded gun.

Q: It's amazing how this random person actually had direct access to the president and to the secretary of state, who eventually got so frustrated that he told him to get lost. How did that happen, just a couple decades after Lincoln was shot?

A: People believed even if they didn't have any experience or credentials they should be able to make their case directly to the president about getting a job.

It was a nightmare for Garfield. He had to spend 10:30-1:30 every day meeting one-on-one with office speakers.

Q: Guiteau's defense at trial was that he was insane. What can we learn from our debate today over the insanity defense?

A: Guiteau's was one of the earliest insanity defenses. If anyone should have gotten off, it was Guiteau, but the country was determined to see him pay.

Because he was he was delusional, he loved all the attention he was getting. He gave every interview he could, so I could be in his mind.

You can see this horrible danger coming toward this young president who has so much promise and life ahead of him. You see this threat coming, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

Q: Has the reaction of readers surprised you?

A: When you write about Theodore Roosevelt, you've got a built-in audience. I knew I was taking a real chance writing about Garfield. It was thrilling to see that there was an interest, that people would give it a chance.

Q: Are readers falling for him?

A: They seem to be. When I go out and talk, I get big audiences, and people seem very enthusiastic. I follow things on Twitter, and every one in a while I'll see the hashtag #garfield2012.

Garfield was brilliant and had a heart to match his mind. People respond to that.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor the Monitor's Books section. 


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