1968, is one of the worst years in American political history. The year began with the stunning Tet Offensive, which more than any other event, changed public opinion on the Vietnam War. Within weeks, President Lyndon B. Johnson took the extraordinary step of announcing that he would not seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The Democratic Party was divided between the Johnson wing of the party and the younger, anti-war wing of the party. In April, the nation was stunned when Martin Luther King Jr., the single most important civil rights leader in the country, was gunned down in Memphis, TN. Riots broke out throughout the nation. In June, Robert Kennedy, a symbol of hope and new leadership for America was murdered by an Iranian extremist while campaigning in Los Angeles. In July, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was overcome with riots and violence. A compromise candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president. A radical Independent candidate, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, the original #MAGA candidate, ran on a platform of "segregation forever!" Out of this chaos, America looked to a man they knew. A man with a long political career. A man who promised to have a "secret pan" to end the war in Vietnam. A man who promised to represent the "silent majority" of Americans and restore "law and order". The American people elected Richard Milhous Nixon.
To many Americans, Nixon is the standard of presidential failure. After all, the scandal that brought him down, Watergate, has become part of the American lexicon. However, the truth is that Richard Nixon has a long list of achievements as President of the United States. In fact, as far as a resume goes, Richard Nixon's credentials were pretty good leading into his election in 1968. Nixon served in the Navy during WWII and entered politics shortly thereafter. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Nixon gained national attention for his hard-line against supposed communist sympathizers within the government. In 1950, he was elected to the Senate were he was known for his conservative politics. Because he was young, conservative, and from the important state of California Nixon was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in 1952. Despite a few missteps (see "Checkers Speech"), Richard Nixon was elected Vice President of the United States under the extremely popular President Eisenhower. Nixon would serve as America's second in command for 8 years before running for President in 1960. In 1960, the somewhat awkward Nixon competed against the young, exciting, inspirational John F. Kennedy. Nixon lost in what would be the closest election in American history.
Following his defeat, Richard Nixon went home to California where he ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor. Lashing out at the media for what he perceived as a liberal bias, Nixon famously told reporters "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Nixon's political career appeared to be over. The 1960s, in many ways, was an era of liberal change. Civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other liberal causes were championed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The Republicans had no answer. There flirt with the far-right in 1964 turned out to be a disaster when their candidate, Barry Goldwater, was defeated in a landslide. However, as the 60s neared an end, the war in Vietnam, the changing civil rights movement, the student movement, and a divided Democratic party gave Nixon the opportunity he needed to return. He was elected in 1968, marking one of the most unlikely political comebacks in American history.
As mentioned before, Richard Nixon had quite a few significant achievements as President. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Vietnam: Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. His plan for "peace with honor" worked....sort of. Yes, the United States was not successful in Vietnam. We lost. However, Nixon, through extensive bombing, Vietnamization, and a controversial (perhaps illegal) expansion of the war into neighboring counties did bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. Nixon ended the draft and brought thousands of brave servicemen and women home from a place they probably shouldn't have been in the first place.
- Environment: Richard Nixon, a Republican, created the EPA. Times have changed.
- Cold War: Nixon normalized relations with the People's Republic of China. Prior to 1972, the United States had virtually no relationship with communist China. The most ardent opponent of communism was now shaking the hand of Chairman Mao. Controversial in its day, the visit to China opened the door for more normal relations which eased tensions and have made the United States and China, despite our many differences, strong trading partners. What's more surprising than his visit to China, was Nixon's visit to Moscow. Relations with the Soviet Union improved under Nixon as he pursued a policy of detente. The easing of relations allowed for more diplomacy and ultimately a reduction in arms between the two superpowers.
With a list of accomplishments like these, it's hard to imagine how a man so successful could be remembered as a failure. The answer is character. Richard Nixon, though a cunning and crafty politician and diplomat, was not suited for the presidency. The President of the United States is not simply the CEO of the country. The President must be more. We don't elect presidents to run our country, we elect them to lead our country. Leadership is the fundamental element of a successful presidency. The bedrock of true leadership is character. Richard Nixon was not a leader and his personal demons ultimately sank his presidency.
Heading into the 1972 election, Nixon had every reason to feel optimistic. His approval rating was high, his agenda was being fulfilled, and the Democrats remained a party in search of an identity. But optimism was not a quality that Nixon had in abundance. The President had spent his whole life looking over his shoulder, paranoid as to who might try to bring him down. He lacked self-confidence, held grudges, and resented people who he thought portrayed him unfairly. He had few close friends, even those with who he spent the most time remarked how little they actually knew him. Over the course of his political career he had amassed a list of enemies. This "enemies list" was made up of journalist, politicians, public figures, and anyone else who Nixon was convinced was out to get him. Unless you're Arya Stark, an enemies list is not the sort of thing one should take pride in. As a result of his paranoia, and obsessed with rooting out supposed leakers within the White House, Nixon went so far as to wiretap the White House so that there would be recordings of his phone calls and private conversations in the Oval Office. It would be these tapes that would be his undoing.
If one examines the history of the Watergate scandal, you might be surprised that for months it was only covered on the back pages of America's newspapers. The scandal took months to gain the attention of most Americans. The extent to which Nixon was involved in the actual crime at the Watergate is still a matter of debate, however, how the President handled the crisis is crucial to understanding his undoing. As Congress, using their oversight authority, tried to discover the truth about the extent of the Watergate break in, testimony revealed the existence of Nixon's secret tapes. When Congress demanded that White House recordings be turned over to investigators, Nixon refused. It was executive privilege he claimed. When Special Counsel for Watergate Archibald Cox learned of the tapes, he subpoenaed the recordings. Nixon refused and ordered Cox to drop the subpoena. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire Cox. The AG refused and resigned. Nixon ordered the Deputy AG to fire Cox. He refused and resigned. Finally, Nixon ordered the Solicitor General to fire Cox. He did and Nixon was in trouble. You can't fire the person investigating you.
Over the course of the next few months, numerous Nixon associates were indicted for interfering with the investigation. Nixon eventually was forced by the Supreme Court to release tapes that proved his role in trying to cover up the break in and obstruct the investigation. As the weeks passed and more associates were facing jail time, it became evident to Republican members of Congress that Nixon was a liability for their party in the 1974 midterm elections. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, future President George Bush, asked Nixon to resign. Meanwhile, Congress drew up articles of impeachment. Before Congress could vote to impeach the President, Nixon resigned, becoming the only President to do so.
Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as a symbol of presidential corruption, scandal, and failure. This is truly unfortunate because it overshadows his very real achievements as President of the United States. Nixon's story serves to remind us, yet again, that the Presidency requires more than political success. It requires more than business acumen or intelligence. The Presidency requires wisdom, character, and humility. In short, the Presidency requires leadership. Richard Nixon for all of his political gifts, was no leader.
First, let's talk about why there was a congressional election in the middle of June. When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency in November, he began to fill his administration with Republicans with experience in Washington. A number of his cabinet members were members of the House of Representatives. Like any president, Trump nominated individuals to his cabinet that were from safe Republican districts. His administration knew that the vacancies that were created would, in all likelihood, be filled by Republicans in special elections. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney was easily replaced by a Republican in South Carolina. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was a Congressman from Montana before his appointment. Montana was so solidly red that the Republican candidate to fill Zinke's vacant seat was charged with assaulting a reporter the day before the election and still won! Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was chosen as the Attorney General. Being a senator, his seat was filled temporarily by an appointee of the Governor of Alabama. Of course, the Governor of Alabama is, you guessed it, a Republican. Finally, there is Tom Price, Trump's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Prior to his new role he represented Georgia's 6th Congressional District. Like all of the others, Price was chosen in part, because his seat in the House was considered very safe for Republicans. How safe? The seat has been held by Republicans since the 1970s. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the district in decades, And Tom Price won reelection in 2016 by more than 30 points.
So why the uproar about the 6th? Probably because, though solidly Republican, Donald Trump only carried the district by 1% point over Clinton. By virtue of being a suburb of Atlanta, with highly educated voters, the Democrats knew that these Republicans would be less friendly to Trump, than the rest of the #MAGA crowd. Finally, their candidate, Jon Ossoff, was young (only 30) and a political outsider. The Democrats felt that if they went into a Republican stronghold and stole a seat from the GOP, it would be a referendum on Trump. They failed. Ossoff ran on anti-trump platform against a traditional Republican. Traditional Republican voters might not like Trump, but they do like traditional Republicans. It was a terrible uphill battle from the start. It should be no surprise that Ossoff lost. Progressives around the country felt devastated when Ossoff lost and Trump felt the need to brag about the GOP victory in a rally. Both sides are overstating this race. In the long term, it means very little.
First of all, if Ossoff had won, he would have served roughly 18 months until the November 2018 election in which he, most likely, would have been defeated by a Republican. Things would have returned to normal. The district is red remember. Furthermore, Trump shouldn't feel over confident. The GOP had to spend millions and millions of dollars to defeat a political upstart who didn't even live in the district, in order to win a special election that shouldn't have been close. Both sides can learn something from the race, but by 2018 it will be all but forgotten.
The Democrats have reason to be optimistic about the 2018 midterm elections. For starters, historically the party out of power always picks up seats in the midterm election. The Democrats may not take the House, but they will certainly narrow the gap. The same will probably be true for the Senate. Why? Right now, there are plenty of moderate Congressional districts, with GOP Congressmen, that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. These Republicans, particularly those in places like California and New York, are going to no doubt suffer from the Trump factor. Considering the fact that the President's approval rating is nearing historically low levels, there is reason to believe that the GOP will have to do the same thing they did in the Georgia 6th, spend millions of dollars to protect safe seats. This means they are unlikely to divert resources to vulnerable seats throughout the country. It is 2018 that matters, not 2017. There are 20 or more seats, with far more moderate voters than the Georgia 6th, that should be the focus of the progressive movement. The seats that were open in 2017 were open for a reason, they were considered safe, and the GOP had to fight to protect them. They were successful, but the Democrats should feel good as well.
Of course, good feelings don't win elections. Yes, the base is energized and yes, Donald Trump is very unpopular. However, Democrats can not run on a platform that is nothing more than anti-Trump. Democratic candidates must put forward and actually agenda. Arguably, the reason Trump won the White House is because the Clinton campaign spent too much time focusing on what a horrible person Trump is rather than focusing on a clear economic message that would impact voters' lives. Whoever Democrats nominate for the nearly 5 congressional seats 450+ congressional seats that are up for election in 2018, they'd better have something better than "vote for me because the other side is worse."
Finally, one of the great mistakes of political observers is an over emphasis on the federal government at the expense of the state governments. American's lives are far more impact by the laws passed in state capitols than they are what happens in Washington D.C. However, most of us can't even name our state representative or senator. A shocking number of Americans don't even know the name of their state's governor. What's worse, hundreds of state and local (and many Congressional) races are unopposed in any given election year. This means, incumbent candidates win by default. In 2016, three of my local representatives, all Republicans, ran unopposed. What the Republican party has done a fantastic job of over the past 8 years is focusing on local and state politics. In doing so, they have won control of 32 state legislatures and have elected 33 governors. As a result, they have been able to pass conservative agendas. They have passed voter ID laws, gerrymandered districts, dismantled medicaid expansion, rolled back regulations, and appointed state judges. Whether or not you agree with their politics, their emphasis on state government should be applauded. In America, all politics is local. If progressives really want to limit the power of the Trump administration, the first line of defense is the state capitol. If you're living in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, California, or anywhere in between, you'd be far better served to donate money, knock on doors, and support candidates for local and state offices than you are chipping in $5 in hopes of winning a symbolic victory in Georgia.
As a progressive, I'm disappointed that Ossoff didn't win. Just as I'm disappointed Democrats didn't win any of the other special elections. However, it is important to step back and take a look at the whole picture. Political change is not brought about by winning single, random elections, but rather by years of harnessing momentum and winning when and where it matters. It will matter in 2018, it will matter 2020, and it will certainly matter when it comes time to vote for your state's legislative and executive offices. In the next year, I for one, need to follow my own advice and get active.
When Vice President Calvin Coolidge learned of President Harding's death in 1923, he was with his family in rural Vermont. Despite the fact that it was late at night, a small crowd of reporters, surrounded the farm house. Coolidge's father, a justice of the peace, dutifully grabbed a Bible and administered the oath of office to his son by candlelight. With that, Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.
Most Americans don't know much about the man known as "Silent Cal", and that would probably be OK with the former President. Coolidge was a man of very few words who never sought the spotlight. Known for his short speeches and dry wit, I doubt the humble Coolidge would succeed, or have an interest in, modern day politics. Grandstanding, stump speeches, and rallies were not his style. However, in his time, Coolidge appeared to be just the kind of president Americans wanted. He was hands-off, fiscally conservative, and in the background. In short, Coolidge allowed the Roaring 20s, to roar. That's probably why he is so far down on this list.
It is for his policy of low taxes, free enterprise, and quasi-isolationism that Coolidge is remembered. That being said, when you're goal is to get the government to do as little as possible, there is very little to be remembered for. Coolidge lowered taxes multiple times during his 6 years in office. By the end, less than 5% of Americans actually paid taxes. Coolidge's proposals were known as "scientific taxation" which is basically the idea behind supply-side economics; low taxes on the wealthiest Americans will lead to more spending, jobs, and ultimately more revenue. To his credit, Coolidge understood that if taxes were lowered, spending needed to be cut. By doing so, he was able to pay off a sizable portion of the federal debt. However, this inactive government that is praised by many conservatives also turned a blind eye to the suffering of thousands. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927 it caused destruction and suffering on a scale rarely seen in American history. When Congress began to craft legislation to aid in the recovery, Coolidge resisted. In his mind, such social welfare would be inappropriate. No doubt, he sympathized with those who had lost their homes, and perhaps even loved ones, but bad things happen and they shouldn't look to the government for help. Although he did sign an aid bill passed by Congress, it was not without a heavy dose of regret.
More noteworthy was Coolidge's veto of an agricultural bill designed to help the nation's farmers. The Great Depression, in many ways started years earlier for farmers. A devastating combination of over production (thanks to mechanization) and plummeting prices (thanks to a decrease in demand) caused terrible economic hardship for farmers throughout the 1920s. On two occasions, Coolidge vetoed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill. The bill would have provided subsides to farmers, bought up excess crops, and attempted to sell them overseas if possible. The hope was the agricultural prices would recover, farmers could make a profit, and food would be on grocery shelves across the nation. To Coolidge though, this was an improper use of tax payer dollars. The bill died twice on the executive's desk and farmers continued to suffer. By the end of the decade, so would everyone else.
Calvin Coolidge was a man for his time. The American people wanted an inactive government and his administration gave them one. The American people wanted to retreat from the world stage. Coolidge did his part to make that a reality by signing strong immigration restrictions and endorsing the infamous Kellog-Briand pact which "outlawed war." If the job of a president is to give the people what they want, I suppose Coolidge did a good job. Unfortunately, the booming economy at home and the peace abroad was built upon a house of cards waiting to fall. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know what happened soon after Coolidge left office. The house of cards collapsed.
Throughout the country the seeds of the Depression were being sown. Zero regulation of the stock market led to speculation, buying stock on margin, and inflated prices. The gap between the rich and the poor was growing each year leaving far too many Americans with far too little purchasing power to keep the economy afloat. Zero regulations on banks meant that banks could make incredibly unwise loans to costumers unable to pay them back. Nor were banks required to keep deposit reserves, meaning a run on a bank could kill even a healthy financial institution. Americans were buying new consumer goods like radios and cars, but they were doing so using credit. The average American's household consumer debt was far higher than previous generations. An unstable international finance system gave the illusion of success, but really was propping up failing economies throughout Europe. The suffering of millions in Europe was leading to an increase in nationalism, imperialism, and fascism, while the feckless League of Nations (which the US did not join) sat ideally by doing nothing. Shortly after Coolidge left office all of these problems manifested themselves.
The former President does not deserve blame for the crisis that happened during after his administration, Rather, the overwhelming opinion of most politicians, business leaders, and every day Americans helped to, unknowingly, create fertile ground for economic disaster. It is only through the benefit of hindsight and the lens of history, that we now see the underlying problems during the 1920s. I don't blame Coolidge, or his advisers, for not recognizing them, but the fact remains that they existed during his silent watch.
In my classroom I have a large poster featuring the timeline of the American presidency. A former student once visited my room and began examining the poster. "Mr. Ashcraft" the student said. "I was in APUSH for an entire year, and I passed the test, and I didn't know we had a president named Benjamin Harrison." While this isn't exactly the sort of thing a history teacher likes to hear, I wasn't entirely surprised. Harrison is little more than a footnote in American history. Textbooks hardly mention his name. He is overshadowed by his predecessor/successor Grover Cleveland (the only person to win two nonconsecutive terms) and by his more famous grandfather, William Henry Harrison, who died one month into office. Harrison had an unremarkable presidency and accomplished very little. However, a upon closer examination, Benjamin Harrison had ideas and supported policies that, had he lived in a later era, perhaps would have made him a president of real consequence. Today, we'll examine how Harrison laid a foundation which future presidents would build upon.
Benjamin Harrison was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1889, just a few weeks short of the 100th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. To many observers, the juxtaposition of the god-like Washington and the short, unimposing, unremarkable Harrison made a statement about the changing nature of our political leaders in a mere 100 years. How far had we fallen? The shadow of Washington, along with Harrison's rather short stature (5'6") made it easy to lampoon the new President. Many political cartoons of the day portray a small Harrison being dwarfed by a large hat, not unlike the one his grandfather would wear. To his critics, he didn't seem up to the job; sure to be overwhelmed. It didn't help that Harrison, like several others, was elected President without the consent of the governed. That is to say, he lost the popular vote to President Cleveland, but eked out a narrow win in the Electoral College.
Because this was an era of weak presidents and a strong Congress, Harrison mostly called upon Congress to take action to ensure civil rights protection for blacks. He did order his Justice Department to prosecute violations of the Fifteenth Amendment which prevented discrimination on the basis of race in elections, but the impact was limited. He called upon Congress multiple times to pass legislation which would empower the federal government to take action to protect African American's access to the ballot. He questioned the mantra of states rights as a euphemism for voter suppression. Though Harrison was ultimately unsuccessful in these matters, his support for an more active role in civil rights protection is certainly noteworthy.
In the area of conservation, Harrison supported legislation that would empower future progressive presidents to do much to protect the environment. Working with Congress, Harrison set aside more than 20 million acres of forest for preservation during his term. He also actively became involved in an effort to prevent the eradication of a species; the fur seal. The open water fishing of seals for their pelts was big business in the late 1800s. While the seals primary lived and bred on in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the open sea was where they spent much of their time. This is also where they could be killed in tremendous numbers by various international vessels, most importantly the British. Harrison's navy intercepted Canadian vessels and entered into negotiations to changing fishing rights, and therefore protect the seals, with the British. Negotiations that eventually proved to be successful. Benjamin Harrison is not a man well-known for his conservation efforts, but the work his administration did was fairly forward thinking given the era.
Finally, Harrison made his mark on the economy as well. Though certainly economically conservative, Harrison made it known early in his administration that he was troubled by the concentration and abused of power in the hands a small number of industrialists. His administration supported the groundbreaking Sherman Anti-Trust Act. This act made monopolies (aka trusts) illegal. During the Harrison administration, and the next two that followed, the act was rarely enforced. However, this act would prove critical for future President Theodore Roosevelt who took action on behalf of working Americans earning him the (overstated) nickname "Trust Buster."
That being said, it was also the economy that helped bring Harrison's administration to an end. The economy began to flounder during the second half of his term. A budget surplus from the Cleveland years had evaporated. High tariffs, supported by Harrison, were blamed for a growing recession throughout 1892, eventually leading to the Panic of 1893.
Underwhelmed by his performance, Benjamin Harrison did not have strong support from his own party in 1892. The Democrats renominated former President Grover Cleveland as their candidate. After all, Cleveland had won the popular vote 4 years earlier. As election day neared, Harrison suffered a personal tragedy when his wife became ill and died just weeks before the election. Cleveland won the election comfortably.
After leaving office, Benjamin Harrison became a education advocate, author, and even an international lawyer. He remarried and lived an active life until his death in 1901. Well-liked and fondly remembered in his home state of Indiana, Benjamin Harrison is largely a forgotten figure in American history. His temperament and administrative style were well-suited for his era, but his personal opinions and quiet advocacy were, in many way, well ahead of his time.
Today's story is sad. It's the story about a mentally unwell man having easy access to a firearm and using to do harm. It is a story about advances in science and the willing denial of scientific research. It is the sad story of the death of President James Abram Garfield.
If you've read my earlier blog entry about Chester A. Arthur (if you haven't I'm insulted), you know that James Garfield's nomination and eventual election represented a compromise within a divided Republican Party. Two wings of the party, the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, represented to different view points in regarding political appointments. The traditional, Stalwart point of view was that government jobs should be given to party loyalist and those that supported victorious campaigns with money and influence. This traditional way of doing things was known as the Spoils System. The Half-Breeds, accurately believed that such political patronage led to corruption and inefficiency. Garfield, like other Half-Breeds, advocated for civil service reform believing that political jobs should be given out on the basis of merit. A radical idea to be sure. At the Republican convention of 1880, the two sides were bitterly divided as to who should be the party standard bearer. Garfield, a nine term Congressman from Ohio, was chosen, in part, because he was well respected by both factions. As a consolation, Chester A. Arthur, a product of the Spoils System and a die hard Stalwart, was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate. This convention is also noteworthy because it is first time in history that a person sought a third term as President. Former President Ulysses S. Grant tried to secure the nomination but was defeated by Garfield.
There is a great deal to like about James Garfield. Everything he achieved in life was due to a tireless work ethic and intellect. Garfield came from a humble background and had to work his way through college. This included working as a teacher, a career he continued after graduating. Garfield was officially a lawyer by trade, but also worked as a minister, making him the only preacher to be elected to the Presidency. During the Civil War, Garfield left his job in the Ohio legislature to join the Union army. Despite no previous military training, Garfield quickly moved up the ranks eventually being promoted to Major General. Garfield, obviously, was against slavery and became an advocate for legal protection for freedmen after the war. During the postwar years, Garfield was elected to the United States House of Representatives where he was a chairmen of numerous committees. His election to the nation's highest office makes him the only sitting member of the House to move from the capitol to the White House. Given his track record, there is reason to believe that James A. Garfield could have very well had a successful presidency. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to make much of an impact.
One person who supported James Garfield in 1880 was Charles Guiteau. Guiteau has been recorded in history books as a disgruntled office seeker. But in reality, Guiteau was much more than a person with a grudge, he was a troubled man who most likely suffered from some kind of mental illness. Throughout his entire life, Guiteau struggled to hold down job, develop close relationships, and generally fit in. He decided to take an unconventional path. As a young man, Guiteau joined the controversial Oneida Community. Oneida was one of a handful of so called Utopian societies that were popular in the mid 1800s. The extreme religious sect sought to create a perfect, sinless community, focused on manual labor, communal property, and "complex marriage." Even within this fringe community, Guiteau was considered too odd to fit in. It seems to be the issue of complex marriage that ultimately caused Guiteau to leave Oneida; not because he disagreed with it, but rather because he wasn't allowed to participate. Complex marriage meant that all adults in Oneida were married to all other adults. As I explain to my students, "In Oneida, men and women would go on 'dates' with whomever they wished, whenever they wished. We know that despite asking lots of girls to go on a 'date', no one would ever agree to go out with Guiteau. Even within a community with such low standards and odd view points, Charles Guiteau was considered too much of an odd ball."
After leaving Oneida, Guiteau tried his hands at a variety of trades, failing at all of them. He declared himself a lawyer (a profession not well regulated at the time), argued one case and lost miserably. We know that he must have had many troublesome personality traits because there were multiple people in his life that tried to have him institutionalized. Nevertheless, Guiteau eventually took an interest in politics and threw his support to Garfield. Despite not having any official role in the campaign, Guiteau wrote pamphlets supporting Garfield and once gave a speech, attended by virtually no one, advocating for the Republican ticket. The closest he ever got to being involved with the campaign was he once shook the Garfield's hand in passing. When the Republicans were victorious, Guiteau believed his support had been crucial and looked forward to being rewarded with a political appointment. After all, he was a Stalwart.
Obviously, Guiteau was not qualified for such a job and never stood a chance of getting one. However, within his troubled mind he clearly believed he deserved one. After months of harassing cabinet members, writing numerous confusing letters, and trying to get close to the President, Guiteau was finally told, under no uncertain terms, that he would not be getting an appointment. It is at this time, that he decided to kill the President. Guiteau, went to a local gun dealer and purchased a revolver. He is said to have purchased the more expensive model with the ivory handle because he thought it would look better in a museum. Obviously, there were no restrictions on gun sales or ownership in 1881. Then again, a person such as Guiteau probably would have very little trouble purchasing a firearm in 2017 either. After weeks of target practice, Guiteau began to stalk the President at public appearances. In July of 1881, Guiteau put on a suit, had his shoes polished, and went to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. When he saw President Garfield walking through the lobby, Guiteau calmly walked up and shot Garfield twice in the back. As he was being arrested, he famously proclaimed, "I am Stalwart [..] Arthur is president now!"
Guiteau was taken to jail to await trial. While in jail, he did a lot of writing including letters to President Arthur, assuming he would be pardoned. When his case went to trial, his defense argued that he was insane, but the judge wouldn't accepted it. It appears that Guiteau was convinced that he had done nothing wrong, that he would be acquitted and made plans to embark on a speaking tour once freed. After all, Guiteau was acutely aware of the fact that he was a celebrity now. Guiteau's story ended with a hangman's noose.
Many modern day doctor's who have examined Garfield's case argue that the President's wounds were not mortal. Some argue that because the bullet missed vital organs, the President could have recovered with minimal medical intervention and lived a full life with the bullet still lodged in his body. Although such view points are not universal, the majority of doctors believe that Guiteau's bullet was not the true cause of President Garfield's death. So why then did President Garfield, suffering from serious but perhaps non-life-threatening injuries die 2 months after being shot? The answer is most likely poor medical care. Groundbreaking scientific research had led to the discovery of germs a few decades earlier. Although microorganisms were not well understood, many in the medical field had begun to advocate for the sterilization of medical equipment when treating wounds as a means of preventing infection. Though the ideas had been around for a number of years, there were many who rejected the science. One such science denier was the chief physician tasked with treating President Garfield, Dr. Willard Bliss.
Bliss rejected the idea of microorganisms. He once argued in a paper that the things we can't see can't possibly make us ill. Almost immediately after Garfield was shot, Bliss and other doctors began sticking their unwashed hands into the wound searching, unsuccessfully, for the bullet. Most doctors at the time believed retrieving the bullet was essential to recovery. Once the President was stabilized, he was moved to the White House to recuperate. Nearly every day for weeks, Dr. Bliss and others would probe Garfield's wound still hoping to locate the elusive bullet; they never found it. At one point, Bliss enlisted the services of Alexander Graham Bell, who used an early version of a metal detector to find the bullet. Bell failed. In the first few days after the attack, the prognosis was positive for the President. He was in good spirits and even wrote family members reassuring them that he would soon be back to his old self. However, as the weeks passed, Garfield's condition worsened. His wound, never properly cared for began to show signs of infection. He began losing strength daily and was in terrible pain. Garfield developed a very high fever, caused by the terrible infection, most likely the result of unsanitary medical care. In addition, their are reports that Bliss refused to allow Garfield to eat much of anything save a small amount of oatmeal. As summer began to draw to a close, Garfield had lost an incredible amount of weight and his condition was dire. The President was moved from the White House to New Jersey to be with his family. There, on September 19, 1881, James Garfield died.
There are many lessons to be learned from Garfield's assassination. Even today, just as in 1881, when there is a tragedy, we ask "what could have been done to prevent this?" Charles Guiteau needed medical treatment; very little was available at the time. Guiteau should not have been allowed to purchase a weapon. But in 1881, the idea of background checks, or any form of gun control, was impossible. Garfield's doctors should have relied on the most advanced scientific research, instead they trusted traditional means of treatment. Garfield's death was the result of a series of unfortunate events, that have a great deal to teach us. It is important that we take the lessons to heart.
Evaluating President Garfield's time in office is difficult because he had so little time to accomplish anything. His presidency last just over 6 months, the second shortest in history. Not much time to leave an impression. However, for his vocal support of civil rights and education reform, along with his attempt at cleaning up political corruption, Garfield deserves some credit. As a result of his Garfield's death, Congress summoned the courage to pass the Pendleton Act which was the first meaningful civil service reform act of the nineteenth century. The anti-corruption legislation, though modest, no doubt would have won Garfield's approval.
It is easy to complain about one's job. "The pay sucks." "I don't feel appreciated." "The hours are too long." "We need a union!" are all common complaints. And I've been more than guilty of making many of these same statements throughout my career. However, occasionally, it is healthy to reflect on the positive aspects of one's place of employment. I am blessed to have a job. I'm also blessed to work for an organization that has afforded me some awesome experiences. This month, I had yet another awesome opportunity. I spend 10 days with 21 students, 5 medical professionals, and a good friend/colleague in La Paz, Honduras.
This was only my second trip to Honduras. Although, the school at which I work sends a team every summer. The purpose of the trip is to share the love of Christ through medical services. Each Spring our school has an annual medical drive where we collect several thousand bottles of vitamins, cough medicine, eye drops, allergy medicines, and various other essential items. We also raise money to purchase large amounts of antibiotics and receive generous donations of hundreds of toothbrushes, toothpastes, and reading glasses. All of these items are packed into luggage and taken with our team to Honduras.
Upon arrival in the capital, Tegucigalpa, we boarded a bus and headed to the city of La Paz, in the district of La Paz. Once there we unloaded at our very comfortable and spacious mission house/compound. In my opinion, everyone, at some point in their life, should spend ten days living with 27 other people in one house. Especially when 21 of those people are teenagers (18 of which were girls), there is no A/C, limited water for showers, and a strict no flushing policy for toilet paper! But there's good food and quality coffee, so it's actually quite nice. One of the cool things we do in Honduras is confiscate our students cell phones. Surprisingly, the kids don't complain. Free of the distraction of social media for 10 days, students spend their time playing games, singing songs, journaling, and making new friends. You know, the kind of things kids like to do when not staring at a screen. Most would be surprised at how little the students actually miss their phones throughout the 10 days. Many remark that they appreciated the chance to unplug.
On Monday, we began our 5 days of clinics. In total we visited 4 different towns. A local church had distributed tickets to the clinic a few weeks in advance of our arrival allowing for roughly 250 patients to be seen each day. Students, with help from local bilingual students, recorded patient symptoms, measured blood pressure, and took temperatures. Then patients would visit one of four doctors. Students sat with the doctors, took notes, occasionally helped with medical procedures, and received a hands on learning experience. If necessary, patients would go to the dentist who spent a lot of time pulling troublesome teeth. At this station, students would assist by holding flashlights and occasionally help with the extraction. Patients then headed to the pharmacy, which is where I spend all of my time. In the pharmacy we did our best to fulfill the doctors' requests. I mixed dozens of bottles of antibiotics and counted dozens of bags of pills. Students worked filling orders, dividing cough syrup, grabbing pre-counted bags of Tylenol, Advil, and vitamins, and making sure children took their worm medicine. After pharmacy, patients went to the foot washing station where students cleaned their feet before praying with them. It is a rather heartwarming site to see admittedly privileged American students, humble themselves and willingly wash the feet of people they've never met. Many of our kids already have, or are quickly developing, the kind of servant's heart that will make a positive impact in their communities for years to come. Finally, patients were all then given toothbrushes and toothpaste and sent on their way.
All in all, roughly 1000 men, women, and children received much needed medical attention. It isn't that medicines and doctors don't exist in Honduras, it is simply that your average person can not afford these basic services. Most all medical procedures require cash payment in advance before any work can be completed. This includes surgery. Many Hondurans don't receive much needed surgery because they can't afford the cost, which includes renting the necessary surgical equipment. For many, the visit with our doctors is the only opportunity they have all year to receive help. The Hondurans will wait for hours in heat waiting to be seen without so much as a complaint. I don't remember the last time I went to a doctor and didn't find myself getting aggravated because it took so long. An emphasis on time is a very American quality.
The doctors that take the trip are amazing. All of them are taking time off of work, sacrificing personal time, money, and comfort to meet the needs of others, share their gifts, and impact students. We are very blessed to able to work with such wonderful people.
Medical care occupied the majority of our time, but it certainly wasn't the only thing we did in La Paz. The first Saturday in Honduras, we helped the church host a party for local children. Our students did a great job of playing games with kids and allowing them to have a great time. The next weekend we visited a local orphanage where our students served a meal to roughly 20 kids before spending a few hours having fun. Early one morning we went to one of the poorest areas of town where we, along with the local church, delivered meals to those in need. Walking through a village consisting of homes built out of tarps, cinder blocks, and sheet metal, helps one to be thankful for the blessing in his own life. Of course, we attended church. Like most things in Honduras, church takes as much time as is needed. They are not bound by the clock. Sunday services start at 4:00 PM and last roughly 3 hours. How many times have I become annoyed because the pastor spoke a little too long and I didn't beat the lunch crowd? The services are long, but they are so filled with so much energy and worship that it is easy to forget the heat and enjoy the moment. Four of our students were able to share their stories with the congregation. They did a wonderful job.
Finally, I have to take a moment to thank my wife, Erin. I'm a high school history teacher, yet I probably spend more time away from home than most teachers. By comparison to those whose career has them on the road each week it may not seem like much, but I spend about a month traveling for work each year. Between an annual senior trip to California, mission trips to Poland and Honduras, and other responsibilities, my job gives me the chance to do some really cool stuff. However, none of this would be possible without the support of my wife. Erin willingly encourages me to travel and takes on full responsibility around the house in my absence. With a 2 year old in the picture, this is not an easy task. I'm very blessed to have such a wonderful partner who gives me the support I need to experience wonderful things like my recent trip to Honduras.
Upon reflection, I am very happy that I went to Honduras this summer. To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to the trip. We're in the middle of selling our house. I feel guilty leaving my wife with our son. Its hot. I had lots of reasons to stay home. However, as is always the case, I received far more from the trip than I could ever hope to contribute. It is true that Christians take mission trips to serve others, however in truth mission trips allow us to grow in our own faith in ways that aren't always possible at home. Our kids did an amazing job and I'm so proud of them. Those who complain about the selfishness of the younger generation don't know the amazing kids I work with on a daily basis. It was an honor to serve with such fine people and I look forward to going back.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.