Never mind the Chinese curse about living in interesting times. We actually like to think our own era is unique and special, that we as a people stand out – for better or worse – compared to those from the past.
Right now, the specter of political violence seems to be setting us apart from the rest of American history, at least in the minds of some pundits. "Tucson will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come," writes Matt Bai in the New York Times.
Bai's statement is a scary one. But what does American history say? Do we really live in a unique time or have we forgotten that we've always been like this?
As the following books reveal, our past is pocked by unhinged young men with guns and grievances. We have been here before, and we will be here again.
Yet the country managed to still survive and thrive. These books remind us of both the horror of political violence and the American system's resilience.
The Men with Guns:
Historian Anthony Pitch calls the assassination of President Lincoln "the saddest story in American history." It's hard to disagree. But there's much more to the tale than most people know. Pitch provides a fine overview of the violent forces in Civil War America in "They Have Killed Papa Dead!": The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance. The best book about the assassin himself is American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman.
Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, by Kenneth Ackerman, and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America, by Eric Rauchway, are fascinating glimpses at the men who felled two obscure presidents. The best book about the death of JFK is Vincent Bugliosi's exhaustive and convincing Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The book's immensely readable narrative of the assassination has been spun off into a separate book. (I interviewed Bugliosi for the Monitor in 2007.)
The Hours and Days After:
James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer is a gripping pageturner, while his followup Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse which I reviewed last year is less exciting but provides a moving portrait of a shocked and grief-stricken country. Citizens mourned en masse as the train carrying Lincoln passed through their towns, a scene that would be repeated decades later after the deaths of FDR and Robert F. Kennedy.
In 2009's The Kennedy Assassination – 24 Hours After: Lyndon B. Johnson's Pivotal First Day as President, Steven M. Gillon captures what Publishers Weekly says are "the two faces of Johnson – the insecure second-guesser and the brilliant politician." The book became an insightful History Channel documentary.
Last year's Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides (which I reviewed) is stunning not only for its readability but for its ability to capture the stresses and strains of the tumultuous 1960s.
The Country Moves On:
To put it mildly, the presidents who ascended to the White House after assassinations in the 19th century did not bring the country to greatness. One was impeached and barely avoided removal from office. Another is remembered for his walrus mustache more than anything else. (Although he does have a special place on my refrigerator thank to my Forgotten Presidents set of finger puppets/magnets. But I digress.)
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and President Lyndon Johnson are, of course, in another category entirely, both men who achieved greatness in office against all expectations.
In 2001, Monitor reviewer Gerard J. DeGroot appreciated Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris's "lively" second volume of his series of biographies of Roosevelt, which tracked his time in the White House. (The third volume, "Colonel Roosevelt," just came out.)
I gave a strong review to the "outstanding" LBJ: Architect of American Ambition in 2006, and reviewer Erik Spamberg liked last year's Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters.
I am still awaiting what should be the definitive presidential bio of Johnson by Robert Caro. His previous books about the pre-presidency Johnson are remarkable, and I look forward to better understanding one giant mystery of a man – the best and worst of America and everything in between.
Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.