Published Thursday, January 17, 2013

A good but reluctant president

Why is it the people who don’t lust for public office tend to make better public servants if they attain it? That’s my impression, admittedly not a carefully-studied perspective. I’m more confident suggesting that those who do lust for office should be summarily rejected. If you enjoy power over others, I don’t want you near it.

I recently enjoyed reading about a man who was as reluctant for power as any who have ever wielded it — James A. Garfield of Ohio, elected President of the United States in 1880. The book by Candice Millard is titled “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.” It focuses on Garfield and his eventual assassin, Charles Guiteau — mostly in the two years before the latter shot the president just four months into his term.

“This honor comes to me unsought,” Garfield said. “I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day.”

A former Civil War general, Garfield was a 48-year-old, nine-term congressman in 1880. He showed up at the Republican National Convention that year to place the name of Sen. John Sherman in the hat for the party’s presidential nomination. The other two candidates were Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine and former President Ulysses S. Grant, who had come out of retirement to seek a third-term comeback.

Early in his speech, Garfield asked, “And now, gentleman of the convention, what do we want?” Loudly from amidst the crowd came the unexpected reply, “We want Garfield!” It was a Saturday night in early June in Chicago.

The Sherman, Blaine and Grant forces pressed for a vote shortly before midnight. The chairman refused to allow business to spill over into the Sabbath, so he recessed the convention until Monday morning. Garfield spent Sunday pleading with conventioneers not to vote for him.

On the third ballot on Monday, one vote surfaced for Garfield. Twelve hours later, Sherman, Blaine and Grant were deadlocked short of the votes to win.

Tuesday morning the contest resumed. On the 34th ballot, Garfield’s number rose to 17, prompting the non-candidate to leap to his feet in protest. The chairman cut Garfield off, gaveled him out of order and told him to take his seat. On the 36th tally, as Garfield looked on in horror, he won the nomination.

Garfield was “shocked and sickened.” He departed in a carriage, rode to his hotel in silence with “a grave and thoughtful expression on his face,” and then collapsed in a chair looking “as pale as death.” He won the general election in November.

As president, Garfield proved honest and competent, but he was appalled at the endless lines of people who wanted a favor or a job. “Almost everyone who comes to me wants something,” he wrote. He later complained, “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?”

Garfield’s presidency lasted 200 days. For 80 of them he lay wounded from Guiteau’s July 2 assassination attempt. He died on Sept. 19, victim of a crazed man who did lust for public office and was angry that the president hadn’t offered him one.

If not for a bullet, the man who least wanted to be president might have become known as one of our better ones.


(Lawrence Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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