Saturday, June 23, 2012

Quote of the Day (James Garfield, on the Presidency He Sought)

“My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?”—President James A. Garfield, diary entry for June 8, 1881, quoted in Garfield:A Biography, by Allen Peskin (1978)

President Garfield wrote those words only three months after taking the oath of office. The cause of his lamentation—an endless round of office-seekers that needlessly consumed his time—was also the cause of his death—an unhinged member of this vast tribe who fatally wounded him in July 1881.

I suspect that more than once, Garfield’s private misgiving about his office has echoed, in either its original form or some variation of it, in the minds of every occupant since then. (Though civil-service reform enacted in the wake of his death took care of one drain on his time, yet another appeared in the 20th century: the swelling of executive power that had the baleful effect of voters looking to the President to solve everything.) 

Yet nearly all of those in their first terms, including President Obama, want another crack at it. I’m not sure it’s the trappings of the office that get them so much as the chance to vindicate themselves while they still have time before the bar of history.

What awaits them—as well as their unsuspecting challengers, including Mitt Romney—is another story. Again, Garfield is instructive. This highly intelligent man, now unfairly neglected by posterity, came to know the price of high office. His last written words, scribbled in pain two days before he died in September 1881, were Strangulatus pro republica (Latin for “Tortured for the republic”).

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