After watching a good part of the RNC and as much as I could stand of the DNC (not very much, admittedly), I was struck by the contrast presented by Candice Willard in her excellent book Destiny of the Republic (reviewed here by Marcia).
Garfield had no ambition to become president. He had a brilliant intellect and a prodigious work ethic. According to Willard:
Unable to afford tuition, he convinced the school to allow him to work as a janitor in exchange for his education. He swept floors, hauled wood, and made fires, and he never tried to hide his poverty from his fellow students.
His day began at 5:00 a.m., as he immersed himself in Virgil, before breakfast, and it continued, unabated, with studying, classes, work, and more studying until just before midnight. No one worked harder, and if they came close, he took it as a personal challenge.
So vigorously did Garfield apply himself during his first year at the Eclectic [the school] that, by his second year, the school had promoted him from janitor to assistant professor. Along with the subjects he was taking as a student, he was given a full roster of classes to teach, including literature, mathematics and ancient languages. He taught six classes, which were so popular that he was asked to add two more — one on penmanship and one on Virgil.
After graduating from Williams College two years later, he returned to the Eclectic Institute to teach. By the time he was twenty-six years old, he was the school’s president.
But Garfield’s intellect wasn’t limited to academics. He also distinguished himself in the Civil War. After the Battle of Middle Creek, during which Garfield’s strategy and tactics overcame a much superior force and left Kentucky solidly in Union hands, he was promoted to Brigadier General.
During and after the war, Garfield served in Congress and was eventually elected to the Senate by a landslide although he refused to campaign for the office. His campaign expenses were less than $150.
When it came to the presidency, Garfield simply looked the other way. He spent seventeen years in Congress, and every day he saw men whose desperate desire for the White House ruined their careers, their character, and their lives. “I have so long and so often seen the evil effects of the presidential fever upon my associates and friends that I am determined that it shall not seize me,” he wrote in his journal in February 1879. “In almost ever[y] case it impairs if it does not destroy the usefulness of its victim.” Aware that there was talk of making him a candidate in the presidential election, Garfield hoped to avoid the grasp of other men’s ambitions, and to be given a chance to “wait for the future.” However, he had already lived a long life for a young man, and he knew that change came without invitation, too often bringing loss and sorrow in its wake. “This world,” he had learned long before, “does not seem to be the place to carry out one’s wishes.”
It was Garfield who was called upon to give the nominating speech for John Sherman, during the Republican National Convention of 1880. Sherman was a fellow Ohioan and Garfield was obligated to support him although he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about it. Sherman was contending for the nomination against former President Grant, who was being backed by one of the most powerful and corrupt senators NY has ever seen, a man named Roscoe Conkling.
Garfield’s speech in support of Sherman followed Conkling’s for Grant. It was largely extemporaneous. No teleprompters
I HAVE witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this Convention with deep solicitude. Nothing touches my heart more quickly than a tribute of honor to a great and noble character; but as I sat in my seat and witnessed this demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured. When the storm has passed and the hour of calm settles on the ocean, when the sunlight bathes its peaceful surface, then the astronomer and surveyor take the level from which they measure all terrestrial heights and depths.
Gentlemen of the Convention, your present temper may not mark the healthful pulse of our people. When your enthusiasm has passed, when the emotions of this hour have subsided, we shall find below the storm and passion that calm level of public opinion from which the thoughts of a mighty people are to be measured, and by which final action will be determined. Not here, in this brilliant circle, where fifteen thousand men and women are gathered, is the destiny of the Republic to be decreed for the next four years. Not here, where I see the enthusiastic faces of seven hundred and fifty-six delegates, waiting to cast their lots into the urn and determine the choice of the Republic, but by four millions of Republican firesides, where the thoughtful voters, with wives and children about them, with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and country, with the history of the past, the hopes of the future, and reverence for the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by, burning in their hearts,—there God prepares the verdict which will determine the wisdom of our work to-night. Not in Chicago, in the heat of June, but at the ballot-boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November, after the silence of deliberate judgment, will this question be settled. And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?
At this point in the speech, from somewhere in the crowd, a voice rang out “We want Garfield!”
Although caught off guard by this interruption, and the rush of cheers that followed it, Garfield quickly regained control of his audience. “Bear with me a moment,” he said firmly. “Hear me for my cause, and for a moment be silent that you may hear.” After a short pause, he picked up the thread of his narrative and went on, detailing the triumphs of the Republican Party and sending out a clear and unwavering message to the South: “This is our only revenge – that you join us in lifting into the serene firmament of the Constitution … the immortal principles of truth and justice: that all men, white or black, shall be free, and shall stand equal before the law.”
By the time Garfield finally began to talk about Sherman, he was speaking to an utterly tamed and transfixed audience. Every man and woman in the hall listened to him intently until his final words, and then, as he said, “I nominate John Sherman of Ohio,” the crowd burst into the kind ovation that, until that moment, only Conkling had received.
The next day was a Sunday, but it was far from a day of rest.
While Conkling and his men battled Blaine and Sherman’s supporters in fierce, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and frightened delegates were coaxed, flattered, bribed, and threatened, Garfield spent the day desperately trying to tamp down a growing movement to make him the nominee. Over the course of the day, three different delegations from three different parts of the country came to him, asking him to allow his name to be put into contention. Finally, a concerned friend spoke to Garfield in confidence. “General,” he said, “they are talking about nominating you.” Garfield, feeling his duty to Sherman pressing heavily upon him, replied, “My God, Senator, I know it, I know it! And they will ruin me.” To his would-be supporters he said simply, “I’m going to vote for [Sherman] and I will be loyal to him, my name must not be used.”
In spite of his best efforts, Garfield was unable to circumvent his own nomination. Garfield did not want the presidency, and winning it would cost him his life at the hands of an insane assassin.
Destiny of the Republic is a heartbreaking story of a great man. It shows just have far we have sunk when you contrast our president, a man with no accomplishments, no indication of academic brilliance (he’s spent millions to seal all of his records), no legislative record (voted present more often than not while in the Senate for less than a full term), and no credentials (won the nobel prize for … what?), nothing in fact but narcissism and arrogance; with a man of character like Garfield.