Book Review: “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard

This is a story mainly about James Garfield, the 20th President of United States, who was nominated and elected without his own intention. He rose from poverty, received education to become a school president at a young age of 26, then to become a general during the civil war. Eventually, he was nominated in a strange Republican Primary and eventually won the presidential election without campaigning for it. In a sense, he was drafted because of his great personality and charisma. But his run of luck ran out when an insane, religion-zeal person, Charles Guiteau, assassinated him in a train station. Ultimately, he died from his gun shot wound mostly because of the poor handling by his doctor, Willard Bliss, a self-righteous traditionalist who’s more interested in his reputation than doing the right thing for his patient. It wouldn’t hurt for him to listen to competing opinions of other doctors.

For James Garfield, I developed great respect for his courage and talent. Too bad that he died so early into his term that no one would ever know what he was capable of achieving. I’m sure he’s much better at overcoming the corrupt power force of Roscoe Conkling had he been the President through the whole term. Also, his love for his wife, family, and friend was admirable.

I am shocked by how poorly the President was protected and the poor condition of the rat-infested White House in those days. Overall, the central U.S. government was so poorly funded that there was just one secretary (Brown) that the President can count on to return mountain of letters and screen the onslaught of job seekers. I guess that’s before the government got as bloated as today’s.

The medical practice in those days was arcane. X-ray would have shown where the bullet resided just 16 years later within minutes. Instead, the bullet that rested in President Garfield wasn’t discovered until his autopsy. In a way, Garfield died from the over caring by his ambitious doctor than from the bullet.

Another hero character, Alexander Graham Bell did all he could to invent a metal detector to find the bullet but ultimately his effort was sabotaged by Bliss’s constraining his scoping to the wrong side of patient’s body. Bell’s fanatic effort to search for the solution was heroic that met with tragedy of his own. But the more interesting story lies in his telephone invention and his patent fight against the frivolous law suits. Something never changes.

This book offers a decent treatment of all the major characters and gives the readers a glimpse of the government, the politics, the medicine, the technology, and the people of that era. Utterly enjoyable.