- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, was the last president to have been born in a log cabin, the second-to-last to have been a general in the Civil War, and the first presidential candidate to participate actively in his election campaign.

The reader will learn little of this from the short biography by Ira Rutkow, James A. Garfield (Times Books, $20, 168 pages), one of the series of presidential minibiographies to which Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has lent his name as general editor. Dr. Rutkow is a surgeon rather than a historian, and fully half of the book is devoted to the details — often gory — of Garfield’s lingering death after he was shot in the back by a disappointed office-seeker.

Elected to Congress from Ohio in 1863 largely on the basis of his competent service in the Civil War, Garfield served in the House for 17 years before being elected president. There he quickly gained recognition as one of the hardest workers in Congress, and an expert on finance and tariff legislation. As a young man Garfield had rejoiced in the opportunities afforded him by a college education and by a period as a college professor. In Congress he became a reliable supporter of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

Garfield was a friend to black Americans throughout his political career, and took a special interest in their education. From 1870 until his death he was a trustee of the Hampton Institute in Norfolk, Va.

But Garfield was also a partisan Republican who viewed the end of reconstruction in the South as bad news for the Republican Party. In 1876, as minority leader, he participated in behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to Rutherford B. Hayes being declared president in the disputed election of 1876, in return for a Republican commitment to withdraw Federal troops from the South.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880, Garfield never took his seat. At the Republican convention that summer, a stalemate between factions led by ex-President Ulysses S. Grant and Sen. James G. Blaine resulted in the nomination of Garfield as a compromise candidate. He rejected the traditional front-porch campaign, writing, “I have never quite consented to the muzzling of a candidate” when he is an experienced campaign orator.

The ensuing election was one of the closest in terms of popular vote, but the ticket of Garfield and Chester Arthur would have won handily except for widespread voter intimidation in the South.

In the brief six months of his presidency, Garfield won a bitter battle for control of the Republican Party. He launched a vigorous investigation of fraud in the awarding of postal contracts. But on July 2, 1881, in a railroad station located on the site of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Garfield was fatally wounded by a Republican functionary who believed he was entitled to an office in the new administration.

Dr. Rutkow’s account of the assassination and its aftermath, however disproportionate in length, is riveting. Garfield had the extreme misfortune of falling under the care of a committee of physicians, whose unsanitary probing of his wound, in the author’s view, brought on the infection that killed the president. Dr. Rutkow is on firm ground in discussing 19th-century medicine, and believes that with better care Garfield would have recovered from his wound.

The most important result of the Garfield presidency was the enactment of civil service reform, which reduced the president’s role as a distributor of patronage.

The Ohioan has a small but secure place in America’s political history, and his story is more than a study of medical malpractice.

Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne, was modest about her career as the famous pilot’s radio operator, navigator, and relief pilot during the first decade of their marriage. Aviation writer Kathleen C. Winters argues that Anne was too modest — that in fact she played a significant role in the early years of aviation and deserved her numerous aviation awards.

Ms. Winters’ Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air (Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 241 pages, illus.) focuses on the Lindberghs’ often harrowing adventures while charting airways in the early 1930s, but provides a readable minibiography as well, tracing Anne’s life from her sheltered, privileged youth to the couple’s controversial, peripatetic later years.

Anne undoubtedly was drawn to the adventure of flying — she claimed that she had wanted to take lessons before meeting her husband — and her bravery is not in question. But as Ms. Winters’ narrative makes clear, she flew primarily because her husband wanted her with him and she trusted his skill.

Charles was in the business of proving that flight was safe, to encourage the growth of aviation; Anne deprecated her own abilities but rolled up her sleeves and learned Morse code, radio technology and celestial navigation.

On one record-breaking flight from Los Angeles to New York when she was seven months pregnant, they flew at altitudes of up to 15,500 feet with gasoline fumes leaking into the cockpit and no supplemental oxygen. She suffered in silence because she ” took seriously her own part in promoting aviation, and she didn’t want people to know she had been airsick, or have them consider her a ‘weak woman.’”

Using the Lindbergh family archives at Yale University and the Missouri Historical Society — logbooks, diaries, letters — to supplement Anne’s own acclaimed books, the author has put together the story of Anne’s flying experience and travels with her husband.

A pilot herself, Ms. Winters from time to time waxes rhapsodic about the magic of flying, but there’s no denying the pioneering nature — or danger — of the Lindberghs’ flights across the South Atlantic, across North America to Alaska and the Bering Sea, and across Greenland’s ice cap. As the author says, “Anne and Charles Lindbergh flew during aviation’s golden age, an explosive era when the air crackled with excitement … scouting future airways and potential airport sites at a time when other brave souls perished doing the same.”

The author fleshes out her book with insights into the toll that Charles’ absences and impulsiveness took on Anne, the family’s move to England after the kidnapping and death of their first child, their difficult life on a rocky island off the coast of Brittany, their inglorious manipulation by the Nazis before World War II, their return to America as war broke out, and Anne’s blossoming as a literary light.

As the author admits, Anne’s “piloting abilities weren’t on par with those of celebrated women flyers, who flew competitively, for records and in contests, and who flew long distances alone. But … eventually she would find her own success by transforming her flying experiences into exceptional writing.”

This may not really justify the “First Lady of the Air” subtitle, but readers interested in the early years of flight and the Lindberghs will find the book of interest.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va. John’s biography of James A. Garfield was reissued in the American Political Biography series in 2005.

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