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James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow

The more I learn about James A. Garfield, the more I admire this lesser known United States President. Ira Rutkow has written a short, concise biography as part of the American Presidents Series. The series chronicles the lives of 40 or our 44 presidents.

Rutkow’s tome compliments what I just read (and reviewed) in Destiny of the Republic, a book on the Garfield assassination. Rutkow, however, does not seem to hold Garfield in as high esteem as Candice Millard, the author of Destiny of the Republic. I would assume that the truth of the character of the man lies somewhere in the middle of their two opinions.

One thing is crystal clear: James Garfield was a man of outstanding character and integrity. He (along with most former presidents) makes the current crop of candidates for 2016 look like intellectual and moral dwarfs—such is the state of current presidential politics. We have only ourselves to blame, as we’ve turned the election into a popularity contest. Substance has been replaced by sound bites and character/integrity with politically correct stances on issues, sure to not offend anyone. But, I digress.

Rutkow’s narrative is lively and fast-paced, which is common of the books in this series. Written for the casual history-buff, these volumes are not meant to be authoritative or comprehensive—more like whetting your appetite for more.

The author does draw an interesting parallel at the end of the book to the shooting of Ronald Reagan. Garfield and Reagan’s wounds were similar—the difference being that Reagan benefitted from modern medicine and lived. Rutkow asserts (correctly, I believe) that had Garfield been shot in July 1981 instead of July 1881, he would have lived. Even with the limited medical knowledge they possessed, Garfield’s doctors could probably have saved him. While hindsight is perfect, we’ll never really know if Garfield could have lived and if he did, what sort of president he would have been.