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In a recent AMERICAN EXPERIENCE program on PBS titled “Murder of a President,” Americans finally grew weary of a political organization that indulged the greedy rich at the expense of the rest of the people, destroying the middle class. The country had fallen into corruption and chaos. For President, the common people chose a man who had not sought the presidency. They pulled him from the middle of the pile of what was then the Republican Party because he had already shown that he was willing to take unpopular stands to do what was fair for all citizens, regardless of race or economic status. He was more interested in creating a better country than in promoting himself. He dared to defy the bosses. The times were after the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln. The man was James Garfield.
I won’t pretend I knew anything about President James Garfield before I saw the program—except that he was assassinated by a mentally deranged man with a gun. The man was convinced he would be handsomely rewarded for his efforts, because he was right. Of course, the image of an unstable person with a gun is certainly not unknown today, but the saddest part of Garfield’s death was that it was probably avoidable. His death was finally due to the pride and ignorance of his attending doctor. Although other doctors advised the attending doctor to heed recent research into the importance of using carbolic acid to kill germs, the attending doctor insisted on sticking with the old-fashioned methods he had used through the Civil War. He refused to listen to research. Garfield died of infection.
Greed, prejudice, selfishness, and pride. Garfield’s times sound sadly familiar to me. Many people clamor for a leader who disregards human values to WIN as the heroes in the movies and video games do. People feel helpless before the massive influence of multinational corporations and the lobbies of special interest groups. They want a hero, not a leader. They want someone to take over and be the Parent who has all the answers—what they think are the “right” answers. Many don’t want to be involved themselves. Many don’t want to have to make their own decisions or be responsible for their own free will.
The rise of James Garfield cheered me because his times were no less cynical and seemingly hopeless than our own. The people—and I would have to assume those people were no better informed or more noble than our own population—seized upon someone in whom they could believe. I am cheered to realize that when people believe in their own instincts for good, we can make changes. If we can rise above “the way we’ve always done it,” “take care of old number one,” “more is always better,” and “I don’t need to ask questions,” we can change ourselves. We can change the lives we bequeath to our children and grandchildren.
How does the world change? One belief at a time.