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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April 25, 2018: Assassination Studying: William McKinley



[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the still highly relevant but tricky question raised by our third presidential assassination.
First, it’d be disgenuous of me not to share this earlier post on William McKinley’s 1901 assassination, in which I argued for a couple reasons why (despite the killing’s obvious horror and tragedy) I couldn’t entirely mourn McKinley’s death. I can’t say that my position on that has evolved in the last couple years; while certain orange current commanders in chief have pushed most everybody further down the list of worst US presidents, I would still say that McKinley likely and comfortably occupies a spot in the top ten. To be honest, McKinley’s inaction in response to the 1898 Wilmington coup and massacre—and, more exactly, in response to the most heart-rending letter from an American citizen to her president I’ve ever encountered—would be enough all by itself to merit his inclusion on the worst-of list, and it’s far from the only black mark on the McKinley administration. Obviously McKinley did not deserve to die and his assassination was a national tragedy, but his was far from a good presidency and I won’t pretend otherwise.
When it comes to the specific details of his assassination, I think they reflect a particularly clear version of a question that has become part of many contemporary conversations about terrorists or mass shooters: where was he radicalized? Unlike the obviously Confederate or strikingly personal motivations of the Lincoln and Garfield assassins, the factors that pushed former steel worker Leon Czolgosz to shoot President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6th, 1901 were far less immediately apparent. Historians have generally boiled those factors down to anarchism, one of the late 19th century’s most consistent boogeymen and often a short-hand for cultural fears of various groups (Eastern and Southern European immigrants, Jews, communists and socialists, labor activists, and intellectuals, among others). Czolgosz had attended a speech by the radical activist Emma Goldman on May 6th, 1901 in Cleveland, and the moment has become a particularly clear touchstone for arguments that he was radicalized into an anarchist perspective by the experience and saw assassinating the president as his way to contribute to the cause.
That may well be the case—but at the same time, it’s difficult for me to believe that Czolgosz went from having no radical opinions on May 5th to assassinating the president on September 6th, and so attributing the change solely or even mostly to Goldman feels like both a simplistic answer and a way to further demonize such socialist activists. I’ve seen some historians make the case that it was the violent suppression of an 1897 strike by Slavic miners at Pennsylvania’s Lattimer Mines that truly angered Czolgosz and set him on the path toward political violence, and to my mind that narrative makes a great deal of sense, both in terms of the longer arc of an individual’s radicalization and as a event sufficiently egregious (it came to be known as the Lattimer Mines Massacre) to engender political violence. Yet even then, I’m highlighting a single event or moment as the source of Czolgosz’s radicalization, when the likeliest explanation is both multi-faceted and gradual, a lifelong series of stages that led him to the Exposition grounds with a pistol hidden beneath his handkerchief. We would do well to remember the long arc when we consider the radicalization of today’s politically violent actors as well.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

April 24, 2018: Assassination Studying: James Garfield



[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the mundane nature of our second presidential assassination, and why it matters.
As I’ll discuss more in Thursday’s post, the Lincoln assassination was literally and figuratively dramatic (if not melodramatic) in numerous ways: from its theatrical setting and actor assassin through many other heightened and extreme details, moments, and contexts. Interestingly enough, our second presidential assassination, the shooting of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2nd, 1881, was instead in many ways at the thoroughly mundane end of the spectrum. Guiteau was a disgruntled office seeker who had supported Garfield’s candidacy, believed he was owed a foreign service position, and when denied that opportunity decided to kill Garfield in the hopes that his Vice President, Chester Arthur, would be more willing to appoint men like Guiteau to such roles. After he shot Garfield while the president waited for a train to New Jersey for his summer vacation, each man’s actions and statements reflect the moment’s mundane qualities: Garfield simply exclaimed, “My god, what is this?”; while Guiteau was captured immediately and stated, “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”
That relatively mundane quality to the Garfield assassination reflects some important historical contexts. The Lincoln assassination had been perceived as an anomaly, as part of the Civil War’s violence and extremes, to the point where Garfield did not have any sort of armed guard with him in public settings like the train station; even this assassination did not fully change that narrative, as the Secret Service did not formally add presidential protection to their duties until after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. The motivation behind this assassination was likewise far different from the multi-layered Confederate conspiracy of which John Wilkes Booth was part; Guiteau was a strikingly ordinary man (he didn’t even speak French, despite his desire for the position of Consul to France) who embodied the era’s consistent but hardly world-changing debates over patronage, government office-holding, and related issues. I don’t mean in any way to downplay the horror or tragedy of Garfield’s shooting and death (particularly the gruesome fact that he was in intensive care for eleven weeks before succumbing to his wounds on September 19th), but compared to the Lincoln assassination this second presidential shooting was as undramatic as it gets.
Perhaps due to that lack of drama, I would argue that the Garfield assassination is far less present in our collective memories than Lincoln’s (or Kennedy’s, although of course television and video contributed mightily to the latter’s prominence). Yet as I just noted, those very mundane qualities can tell us a good bit about the assassination’s historical moment and contexts. Moreover, as I argued in this post, in just a few months in office Garfield had already begun a number of important efforts; fortunately his successor Arthur continued many of them, but nonetheless the assassination represented (as they always do) a political and social attack just as much as a personal and violent one. Finally, I would also argue that the mundane side to the Garfield assassination itself reflects a step in the gradual acceptance of political violence as a possibility (if not a reality) within our society, a shift that would likewise have to be linked to the rise of guns and gun violence as a part of America’s social landscape. All reasons to better remember our second presidential assassination, relatively boring as it might be.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?

Monday, April 23, 2018

April 23, 2018: Assassination Studying: In the Line of Fire



[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On a scene that humanizes the JFK assassination, and the shortcomings of the film around it.
At the heart of Wolfgang Petersen’s film In the Line of Fire (1993) is one of those unforgettable, quiet, potent Clint Eastwood monologues. Eastwood’s character Frank Horrigan is an aging Secret Service agent who was part of John F. Kennedy’s Dallas detail; the film’s villain, psychopath Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), is threatening to kill the current president, and while so doing taunts Horrigan with his failures during the Kennedy assassination and wonders if Horrigan has or ever had the guts to take a bullet for the president (an overt, and of course the most unique and difficult, part of the job of every Secret Service agent). In that linked monologue, Horrigan opens up to his fellow agent and love interest Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) about his failures on that November day in Dallas and how they have shaped his perspective and identity ever since.
It’s an amazing couple minutes of film, and a nice reminder that Clint Eastwood is more than just an unhinged RNC speaker or over-the-top “Get off my lawn” caricature of a Grumpy Old White Man. But the In the Line of Fire monologue also does important, complex cultural work when it comes to the JFK assassination and the kinds of questions I raised (vis a vis Susan Cheever’s controversial article) in this post. The assassination has long exemplified the “Where were you when you heard the news?” narrative of history, a reflection on just how communally traumatic its horrific events were. And if on the one hand the Secret Service’s failures seem to have done their part to contribute to that trauma, on the other it’s important to note that the trauma might be particularly devastating when the answer to that “Where were you” question is, “I was a few feet away from Kennedy’s car but did nothing to stop his killing.” At the very least, Eastwood’s monologue does what great art so often does: forces us to think about the humanity within history, complicating and enriching our perspective on that shared, national history in the process.
Unfortunately, the rest of Petersen’s film not only fails to live up to that moment of complexity and humanity, but actively undermines the questions it raises. For one thing, Malcovich’s character and the way he drives the film’s plot is just another example of a psychotic, cat-and-mouse blockbuster bad guy, no different from contemporary villains such as Dennis Hopper in Speed (1994) or Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away (1994) or the like. And for another, more important thing, in order to complement that blockbuster villain, the film turns Eastwood’s agent into precisely the kind of superhero stereotype that the history of the Secret Service reveals to be nonsense; [SPOILER ALERT] in the film’s climax, for example, Horrigan not only proves to Leary, Raines, himself, and everyone else that he is willing and able to take a bullet for the president, but after being gravely wounded continues to chase and eventually overpowers and kills the would-be assassin. This action-movie silliness doesn’t ruin the seriousness of Eastwood’s earlier monologue, necessarily; but it reflects a film that as a whole fails utterly at maintaining that kind of humanity.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?