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Thoughts on Presidents’ Day

 

Abraham Lincoln was among my earliest heroes as a kid. I grew up in Illinois, a state that inculcated a love of the 16th president from the first days of school. My hometown was the site of one of the most famous of his pre-presidential debates with Stephen Douglas, and I often ate an ice cream cone at the little soda shop located just a few feet from where Lincoln stood during that long ago-exchange of rhetoric. So imbued was I with regard for Lincoln that when I first was told, on the playground at school, about how men and women came together to make babies, my first thought was, “Oh, that’s impossible; Abe Lincoln would never do that!"

Then and now, I knew I never could be so great a man as Lincoln. I was a shy and skinny kid, with innumerable self-doubts and insecurities. Still, though I knew early that I had little chance of turning out to be another Lincoln, I figured I would turn out better than some of the other, lesser-known presidents, though I had not a figment of a reason for such an easy assumption.

I surely thought I’d become a better man than James K. Polk, or the doomed William Henry Harrison, who died a mere month after taking office, speaking too long at his own inaugural, hatless in bad weather, and thus contracting the illness that ended any hopes he had to become a great leader.

Presidents were always on my mind. If you ran in one direction, the streets in my town were named after trees. Run in the other direction, and the streets were named for presidents, many of them mostly forgotten by most Americans in the generations that followed mine, when the memory of those men was chipped away from school curricula to make room for new facets of our national history. But for boys like me, those past presidents served as role models.

My sister still lives on McKinley Street, named for one of those dead presidents, shot down at the beginning of the 20th century in a pattern that has punctuated our history. James Garfield was another such victim of a crazy person with a gun, an assassin who had lived for a time in the very town where I was born and spent my childhood dreaming of men from times gone by.

I recently read a book about Garfield and his assassin called The Destiny of the Republic, written by Candice Millard. I read the book not out of any particular interest in James Garfield or his murderer, but because I’d liked her previous book in which she retold the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential adventures on the Amazon River and its tributaries, a trip that almost killed him.

The man who shot Garfield was named Charles Guiteau. Most history texts pass over him with the description “disappointed office seeker,” but the story is richer than that. Guiteau lived most of his life in a fog of delusion. He shot Garfield with a .44 caliber pistol in the belief that he was saving the Republic. You don’t have to spend much time online these days to find men posting similarly delusional ideas about themselves and making threats against our president.

In addition to keeping me turning pages, Ms. Millard’s book also informed me that President James Garfield was, like a couple of other assassinated U.S. leaders, a man worthy of admiration. Like Lincoln, Garfield was a deeply moral man, a crusader for the rights of the newly emancipated slaves, a loving father and husband, a man of conviction, principle and unwavering decency. Like Lincoln, he rose to the heights out of abject poverty.

If more kids knew these stories of challenge and courage, we might be a better nation than the one we currently live in, where kids are encouraged to admire tainted sports figures like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods, or callow celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan.

Few of us are destined to achieve the greatness of Lincoln. Few of us are as good, as brave, and even as thoughtful of other people as the lesser-known James Garfield. But it’s important we remember people like them, not just out of respect for what they did, but for the model they offer of what any of us might aspire to become.

Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Magalia, California.