Book Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

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Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

I’m a very healthy person. I exercise regularly, watch my weight and diet, and while I’ll indulge in wine, spirits, cigars and cigarettes on occasion, I am the model of moderation. I have been sick exactly twice in the last ten years and I have never spent a second in a hospital as a patient. Most people guess I’m ten to fifteen years younger than I am.

My good fortune with health has nothing to do with genes and I don’t have a picture of Dorian Gray in my closet. I attribute my condition to being constantly creative, constantly horny and avoiding doctors like the plague.

I’ve been to doctors now and then over the years and I can honestly say I have only found one who was helpful: the guy who did my vasectomy. As for the rest, I’ve found them to be arrogant, impersonal, dogmatic, judgmental and, in some cases, flat-out dangerous. They spend a few seconds with you not listening to a thing you’re saying, write you a prescription whether or not you need one and hurry off to the next patient to keep that revenue stream going.

Candice Millard’s well-written and surprisingly exciting book provides me with historical evidence to support my view that physicians are to be shunned at all cost. The victim of non-lethal gunshot wounds, President Garfield was systematically murdered by his physicians by their insistence on established medical dogma and an unwavering commitment to preserving the hierarchy of experience. Younger physicians who had more promising ideas about how to heal the president were dismissed, as was Lister’s already proven theory of antiseptic medicine. You may argue that modern medicine is more advanced and that Garfield wouldn’t have died had the same thing happened today. While that is almost certainly true, I point you to the estimates that 50,000 to 300,000 people a year are killed by medical errors (the wide variation in numbers has to do with the inability of the health care industry to keep track of anything). After five years experience working in health care and with physicians, I can confirm they are as arrogant, greedy and self-satisfied as they were in Garfield’s time.

Ms. Millard does a superb job bringing Garfield to life, a poor boy who through hard work and commitment turned himself into something of a Renaissance man, highly educated and self-aware. He had a passionate commitment to the African-American community, and was determined that they achieve full equality during his term. The what-ifs of Garfield may not be as tantalizing as those of JFK, but taking a moment to imagine the improvement in race relations that could have occurred eighty years before the civil rights movement demonstrates what kind of historical impact Garfield might have had if he had lived to complete his term.

Guiteau, the assassin, was truly insane. The jury that convicted him couldn’t have cared less. The assassination represented a shocking injustice to the nation, and Guiteau never would have survived in a mental institution, not with skilled and experienced lynching mobs at the ready. Guiteau was one in a long line of nobodies who wreaked havoc on history, and as Ms. Millard demonstrates with her beautifully detached writing style, there was no helping him.

The author weaves the threads of American politics with the 19th century mania for new inventions right from the start of the book, because Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in the story. With superhuman dedication, he invents a device that could have found the bullet in the president’s body—had the doctors not interfered with his examination. The character of Roscoe Conkling, political boss, is so vivid that you can easy visualize him in imperial motion in the halls of Congress or on the streets of New York.

Destiny of the Republic is an exceptionally well-written and extremely readable history that warns of the dangers we all face if we enslave ourselves to the wisdom of the experts. Candice Millard is a fine writer with an exceptional gift for structuring a narrative and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

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