- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

Of America’s quartet of slain presidents, it’s not difficult to pick the name that resonates least today: There’s John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley… and coming in a very distant fourth, er, whatshisname.

James A Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station on July 2, 1881, and took 2 months to expire, which is almost as long as he had been in office before he set off to catch the train. So, when my little boy looked up from his Picture Book Of Presidents on Presidents Day and asked me to tell him something about Garfield, my inclination was to say that he took longer to die than any other assassinated president and then pass on to the thrills of Chester Arthur.

But, as it happens, those long weeks between the murderer’s shot and Garfield’s final breath are a fascinating period in American history and not irrelevant to our present troubles. Thanks to the marvel of transcontinental telegraphy, the resident’s slow demise was a protean media event, and newspapers filled with readers’ suggestions on what to do to save his life. Herbal remedies, patent medicines and a “rubber bed” piled up in the White House mail room. The first problem was that the doctors didn’t know where the bullet had lodged. So Alexander Graham Bell teamed up with Simon Newcomb and, applying the sound-amplification principles of Bell’s telephone to Newcomb’s electricity-filled wire coils, the two men hastily cobbled up a metal detector, tested it on various bullet-bearing Civil War veterans, and then assembled at the president’s bedside. Within days.

The second problem was the heat. The temperature in Washington that summer soared to 105 degrees, which didn’t make the ailing man’s bedroom any more comfortable. Four days after the shooting, R.S. Jennings of C.H. Roloson & Co in Baltimore cabled Garfield’s doctor with the news that he had invented a “cooling apparatus” for “refrigerating the president’s room.”.Another two days later and Navy engineers were helping install it at the White House: It forced air through cotton sheets below an ice-filled box to keep them wet.

In the end, Garfield never recovered. The hastily developed metal detector that worked fine at the veterans’ home was supposedly thrown off by the springs in the president’s state-of-the-art mattress. The crude “air cooling apparatus” was rendered less effective by the doctors’ insistence on keeping the windows open, and it burned up ice — more than 160 tons, for which the government paid the Independent Ice Company $1,176. Yet the air conditioning we take for granted today operates on broadly similar principles.

You don’t need a metal detector to see that in 1881 an extraordinary event galvanized a nation’s finest minds. All was energy and inventiveness, in the private sector, the military, even the bureaucracy: If you’re looking for “root causes,” Charles Guiteau was said to have shot Garfield because he had failed to receive a federal job handed out as patronage baubles by the Washington spoils system. The new president had already complained of being stalked by wannabe federal officials “lying in wait… like vultures for a wounded bison.” Two years later, his successor signed the Pendleton Act creating the modern civil service.

It’s now accepted that Garfield died simply because of the amount of poking and prodding by the doctors with unsterilized instruments and grubby hands. Joseph Lister’s ideas on antisepsis had become standard in Britain but not yet in the United States. Within three years of Garfield’s death, Dr. William S Hallsted opened America’s first modern operating room at Bellevue: Today, if you suffered the president’s wounds, you would be home in three days.

The metal detectors developed by Bell’s successors are used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and air conditioning is a transformative technology: Look at the fastest growing region of the United States — the so-called Sun Belt — and imagine its growth without the cooled buildings that keep the sun at bay.

America is now five years on from an even more extraordinary event. How have the private and public sectors responded? With longer lines at the airport and the cutting-edge technological innovation of making you bend down and remove your shoes (and even your gel-filled bra) while bored officials wander up the line barking incomprehensible lists of prohibited fluids: that would be a state-of-the-art system for boarding the Mayflower. The government failures of September 11, 2001? They’ve taken the Department of Bureaucratic Timeservers and renamed it the Agency of Homeland Patriotic Vigilance: same great service, new hat.

The continuing torpor of State, the dysfunctions of the CIA are unthreatened by anything beyond the merest cosmetic reform. Minor border security changes such as requiring passports for travel to and from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean take the best part of a decade to introduce; meaningful border security is scheduled for midcentury, though they won’t say which one. As for support from the private sector, the Border Patrol’s mission — “prevent the entry of terrorists and their weapons into the United States” — is so offensive the NFL banned them from advertising in the Super Bowl program. “The ad that the department submitted was specific to Border Patrol, and it mentioned terrorism,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Washington Times. “We were not comfortable with that.”

When my book came out, arguing the current conflict is about demographic decline, civilizational will and globalized pathologies, a lot of folks objected, as well they might: Seeing off supple amorphous abstract nouns is not something advanced societies do well. You’re looking at it the wrong way, I was told. Technocratic solutions, new inventions, the old can-do spirit: that’s the American way, and that’s what will see us through.

Well, OK, so where is it? The glamour boys of the moment — Barack Obama, John Edwards — run on watery pabulum from the easy-listening oldies playlist. Five years after September 11, we’re not looking ahead, we’re looking back — in the legislature, in the courts, in the media: President Bush’s “lies” about weapons of mass destruction, the Senate vote to authorize the “use of force” against Iraq, Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger, Joe Wilson’s self-leaking of his mischaracterization of his trip to Niger. … Rear-view mirror stuff, all of it, endlessly. On the dark shapes looming in the windscreen — Iran, Sudan and much else — we operate ineffectually through yesterday’s institutions, like the United Nations and the European Union. Two billion dollars from American taxpayers go to the government of Egypt and in return they give Hezbollah’s TV network a slot on the state satellite system. At the gas pump, we fund Hugo Chavez and the Saudi radicalization of Muslim populations around the planet. The obvious transformative technology — an alternative to the global economy’s oil dependence — is as far away as it was on Sept. 10, 2001, and the Alexander Graham Bells of our day are busy inventing the “self-repairing condom” — a marvel of nanotechnology to be sure but not one with much strategic use unless you can supersize it and unroll it down every Wahhabi mosque.

Measure September 11, 2001, against Sept. 19, 1881, and you will recognize the outpouring of grief — “The Sobbing Of The Bells.”

But in our time urgency and innovation are strangely absent: to modify Whitman, the slumberers decline to be roused.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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