December 11, 2012

Don't let your sons grow up to be James Garfields

It may be clear that I really like Hayes. I dig his wife, his kids are hot, he seemed to be a very temperate and decisive man. A real Ed Harris type. He was not a great president, but not many are. He was, however, determined, ethical, effective, and fair. The federal government was a real mess from the catastrophe of the Johnson administration and the negligence of the Grant administration - Congress has gradually risen in power to almost overshadow the executive - and Hayes stopped the tide and started the process of turning it back.

He vowed to not seek a second term, because he (rightly) thought his civil service reform efforts would be muddied by the favors needed during a reelection campaign. And he was pleased when the Republican nominee in 1880 was his fellow Ohioan and friend James Garfield. [Notice how Ohio is having a big moment in post-Civil War America? It's like the new Virginia.] This underscores another reason I really like Hayes, and that is that I really hate James Garfield.

Perhaps more accurately, I really don't like Congressman and President Garfield, but I really hate young James Garfield. But before we get to that, I want to introduce you to someone:

This is Margaret Leech, author of the Garfield biography I read. Notice anything about her? She's a woman! And she wrote a presidential biography! It's an At Times Dull first!

A year or so ago I saw T Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris speak, and in the signing line I asked him to recommend a Taft biography, which he did, and then he went on to say, "Make sure you read Margaret Leech." She's written biographies of Garfield and McKinley, a few novels, a lot of magazine work, and an account of life in D.C. during the Civil War. She was the first woman to win two Pulitzers. (Asterisk: her father-in-law was Joseph Pulitzer.) She's generally great. She actually died while writing The Garfield Orbit and the last two chapters were finished from her notes, but I decided to read it anyway because Garfield and his 6-month term don't matter that much.

It's interesting that this book was written by a woman, because it's by far the soapiest I've read. But then, maybe Garfield is just the soapiest president so far. He was born into poverty in Ohio and his father - as so many fathers of future presidents do - died when Garfield was still a boy. He very famously worked on the canal as a teenager and went to a prep school run by The Disciples of Christ, a fairly strict sect of Christianity he converted to when he was 18ish.

He was very alpha male. He was boisterous, magnetic, inspiring and condescending. He was known from an early age as a talented orator, and spent most of his weekends preaching. Women routinely became obsessed with him, which is curious because this is his face:


I just think he was a tool. He was one of those insecure egomaniacs who want to be in charge of everything so they can feel loved. I spent all of this book annoyed.

For starters, he was a caveman when it came to women. He met his best friend, Almeda Booth, when they were at school together. They would stay up all night together translating Greek and discussing theology and making lesson plans. They were extremely compatible, but he laughed at the idea of them being together because she was ugly, and women are not for conversing with, they're for doing your shirts.

Which is why he married Lucretia, or Crete. Crete was tiny, shy, and in awe of James. They fell in love and got engaged, and then he went to Massachusetts to attend Williams before they got married. While at Williams, he fell completely out of love with Crete. He started sleeping with his friend Rebecca, because she "loved his preaching." While this went on, he convinced Crete and Rebecca that they should write letters to each other, because he wanted his friend and his fiancee to "be like sisters." Total Garfield.

Crete went out to Massachusetts for James's graduation and it was the worst week of her life because James ignored her and made her hang out with Rebecca the whole time, like the catch that he was. After college he moved back to Ohio and became president of his old school and meant to do right by Crete, who had been waiting around for him for years, even though he didn't like her anymore. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate, because his preaching had made him so famous, and he and Crete both moved to Columbus, still unmarried, where they thought a change of scene would give them a fresh start. WRONG. They still didn't like each other very much, but after 5 years of engagement, only 1.5 of which had been happy, there was nothing left to do but GET MARRIED ANYWAY. They rented a room in a boardinghouse for their first miserable years of marriage, unaided by the fact that ugly soulmate Almeda moved into the room next door to theirs and took all of James's attention.

What is baffling about their whole story is that James and Crete went on to be extremely happy. After 3 years of bad marriage he went off to war. After a year he had to return to Ohio for the summer to recuperate from illness, and, by their own accounts, their physical reunion was somewhat invigorating. Then, they fell in love again. After that they would always describe their marriage as having been perfect after they got through the miserable beginning. I mean, don't try this at home, but I'm glad it worked out for them. On the other hand, there were a lot of affair rumors for the whole of Garfield's life. Crete never believed them but I have no trouble doing so.

In my next post I will talk about how Garfield had diarrhea for the whole of the Civil War.

1 comment:

  1. This is priceless. Sometimes you just have to a call a tool a tool. Plus I learned about a woman writer whom I will definitely check out. Thank you.