Thursday, February 11, 2016

American Experience: “Murder of a President” (PBS-TV, aired February 2, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The week before I’d watched another American Experience show on PBS: “Murder of a President,” about the second and what is probably the least studied of America’s four assassinations of a President while in office: the killing of James A. Garfield in 1881. The killings of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963 are widely, and correctly, regarded as two of the seminal events in American history, and though the William McKinley assassination in 1901 isn’t quite as well known it’s nonetheless studied for its historic significance (it suddenly and unexpectedly brought the far more progressive Theodore Roosevelt into the White House) and also because it’s one assassination that reflected the tumult of the time in other countries as well as the U.S. (The assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was a self-proclaimed anarchist, at a time when kings in Russia and Italy had also fallen victims to anarchists’ bullets.) The Garfield assassination is comparatively little known and if it’s cited as evidence of anything, it’s as the impetus for the first establishment of an American civil service. Until then, virtually every office in the U.S. government was appointed by the President and served at his (I suppose with a major female candidate in the race this year I should be writing “his or hers,” but in fact so far every U.S. President has been a “he”) pleasure — which meant that when the presidency changed parties, there were wholesale dismissals of government employees and their replacement with people from the new President’s party, who often had worked on the newly elected President’s campaign precisely in order to get rewarded with a federal job. (It became known colloquially as the “spoils system.”) Unlike the Leopold and Loeb show a week later, which was mostly straight documentary and used only one actor (James Cromwell, who read the famous closing argument of Clarence Darrow but was never seen — we heard Cromwell but we saw photos from the time of the real Darrow, who interestingly, of all the actors who’ve played him, looked more like Orson Welles in Compulsion, the 1956 film of the Leopold and Loeb case, than any of the others), this one had extensive reconstruction scenes, with actors Shuler Hensley as Garfield, Kathryn Erbe (Vincent D’Onofrio’s partner on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) as his wife Lucretia, Will Janowitz as his assassin Charles Guiteau, Sean Mahon as political boss Roscoe Conkling from New York, Adam LeFevre as Garfield’s vice-president Chester Alan Arthur (a choice Conkling had imposed on Garfield as a condition for Conkling’s support in the general election), and James Eckhouse as Dr. D. W. Bliss, who treated Garfield on his deathbed — the President was shot on July 2, 1881 but didn’t die until September 19.

The show, written and directed by Rob Rapley from a “story” by Paul Taylor and a book called Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, basically fell into three parts: the first focused on Garfield himself and in particular his principled opposition to slavery. He volunteered for the Union Army in the Civil War and originally did so, like so many others, merely “to save the Union,” but once he actually was sent to the South and saw slavery “up close and personal” he developed a lifelong revulsion not only towards slavery itself but the white supremacist ideology that was its underpinning. Indeed, when Garfield was elected President (after a deadlocked convention finally agreed on him as a “dark horse” after he’d delivered an impressive nominating speech for someone else — Senator John Sherman, later famous as author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act) he had Frederick Douglass, no less, head his inaugural parade. Rapley was essentially arguing that Garfield’s election and subsequent assassination was an historically significant “road not taken” for American democracy, race relations and civil rights; had Garfield lived, Rapley contended, he wouldn’t have put up with the Southern states’ reimposition of second-class citizenship on American Blacks through “Jim Crow” segregation laws and both legal requirements and terror campaigns by the Ku Klux Klan and others aimed at keeping Black Americans from being able to vote. (This seems a rather dubious example of historical wishful thinking to me; there was too much pressure, not only from a war-weary Northern population that didn’t want to maintain a standing army of occupation in the South indefinitely but a business community that wanted to exploit the South as a source of cheap labor and was perfectly willing to see the Southern states governed by ex-Confederates who’d keep wages down and pit poor whites against poor Blacks against each other to keep down any efforts at unionization, on the federal government that no matter how idealistic Garfield may have been about race, he would not have been able to stop the process by which African-Americans in the South were being stripped of all legal and social rights.) The second third of the show was about Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, who worked his ass off for Garfield’s campaign and expected to be rewarded with the consulship in Paris — which wasn’t about to happen, especially once Garfield appointed an ambassador to France who wanted nothing to do with Guiteau — and how his commitment to Garfield curdled into hatred. Guiteau was obviously mentally ill — I suspect if he were around today the diagnosis would be bipolar disorder — and he had become convinced that once he killed Garfield the country would acclaim him as a hero, which of course never happened.

The last third of the Garfield program was about the man Rapley cast as the real villain of the piece, Dr. D. W. Bliss. When Garfield was shot no fewer than 12 doctors attended him (and probably just made matters worse by poking around inside him trying to locate Guiteau’s bullet with their bare, ungloved hands), but Bliss systematically drove the others away, arguing that because he’d been a military doctor during the Civil War he understood gunshot wounds and the others did not. The others included Dr. Silas Boynton, a homeopath who was also President Garfield’s cousin, and though Bliss had had a flirtation with homeopathy (and had lost his practice from it), he had now changed sides and rejected all forms of what now would be called “alternative” medicine with a vengeance. The point was that one of the things homeopaths stressed — well before allopathic physicians knew of its importance — was cleanliness; at the time Garfield was shot Joseph Lister’s researches documenting that many patients died under doctors’ care from infections transmitted from other patients via doctors’ unclean hands and clothes were 15 years old and still controversial within the medical community. Boynton looked at Garfield’s wound and the pus that was coming out of it and wanted to give it a thorough cleaning; Bliss said no, and at some point in Garfield’s delirium the President himself told his cousin, “He’s seen more gunshot wounds than you have. Bliss is my doctor.” Rapley was obviously convinced that even given the state of medical knowledge in 1881 Garfield could have survived the assassination attempt if his wound had been kept clean and if Bliss and other doctors hadn’t kept literally sticking their (ungloved) hands into it to try to locate the bullet, which was not on Garfield’s right side (as Bliss was convinced it was) but on his left (which was established only after he finally expired and his body was autopsied). “Murder of a President” was an interesting documentary, a bit too History Channel-ish for me (though it was nice to see Kathryn Erbe again in a quite different role from her cop on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) and awfully disjointed, but somehow I prefer the PBS documentaries that keep it old-school. It’s been hard enough for me to accept the sepulchrally voiced actors reading letters from actual people of the period — the approach Ken Burns used movingly in The Civil War and ran into the ground in his subsequent documentaries — without putting up with actual actors on the screen and the awkward alternations between dramatized and documentary scenes.