[photo found here at TV Weekly Now]
The description of the 1880 Republican convention in Tuesday night’s “American Experience” on PBS sure sounds like a possible future for both major parties as they choose their 2016 presidential candidates.
The delegates were about evenly divided between Senator James G. Blaine and the former president, Ulysses S. Grant. The two sides held significantly different visions and were not much interested in compromise or unification. But a third guy who wasn’t a candidate gave a speech and changed everything.
“As Garfield was delivering his address to the delegates,” the program’s narration says, “he shouted, ‘And now, gentlemen of the convention, what do we want?’ From the midst of the crowd came an unexpected answer: ‘We want Garfield.’”
The speaker, of course, was James A. Garfield, a congressman from Ohio, and on the convention’s 36th ballot he became the surprise nominee. Might such high drama await at a 2016 convention? The precedent is there to be followed.
For Garfield, though, the convention triumph was good news-awful news, because this “American Experience” is called “Murder of a President,” and its real focus is his assassination just months after he took office. The program, a particularly engrossing installment of the series, portrays Garfield as the John F. Kennedy of his century — a president who embodied a lot of hopes and potential that were never realized.
It’s a story that has some resonance here in an age when much wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. The factories of the industrial revolution were creating a similar effect in the late 19th century.
“Those factories were channeling unimaginable wealth to a growing aristocracy,” the narration says. “By 1880, the inequalities of capitalism were so vast that they threatened democracy itself.”
Politics was about patronage, the rich and powerful using the system to benefit themselves and their friends. Garfield, we’re told, was seen as someone who might reverse this trend. But all that changed on July 2, 1881, when an unstable hanger-on named Charles Guiteau, apparently thinking he would have a better chance of snagging a patronage job if Vice President Chester A. Arthur were president, shot Garfield twice.
The poor doctoring Garfield received is now the stuff of legend and is thoroughly, somewhat gruesomely detailed here.
“Even by 1880 standards, Garfield was receiving very questionable medical care,” says Candice Millard, whose book “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” is the basis for the program.
The oddly named Doctor Willard Bliss — yes, Dr. Doctor — comes off as a villain to rival Guiteau, making bad decisions and barring other physicians from assisting or advising. Garfield died that September.
The re-enactments used to help tell the tale are particularly evocative by “American Experience” standards, thanks to the cast: the Broadway star Shuler Hensley is Garfield; Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) is his wife, Lucretia; and Will Janowitz is the creepy Guiteau. Other presidential assassinations have received far more attention, but this one, the program reminds us, had its own particular pathos.
A version of this review appears in print on January 30, 2016, on page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Surprise Candidacy, and a Doomed Presidency.