Assassination Vacation

by Sarah Vowell
258 pages,
ISBN: 0743260031

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The Cultural By-Products of Assassinations
by James Roots

The pistol that allegedly made Thomas D'Arcy McGee the only federal politician in Canadian history to be assassinated was auctioned off recently. It sold for $105,000.00, thankfully to Canada's own Museum of Civilization-although one ponders the irony of a murder weapon being showcased by a museum dedicated to "civilization".
Aside from this pistol, whose authenticity is questionable (its original owner probably was not the killer), McGee is commemorated by little more than a cheesy plaque on Sparks Street in Ottawa, and by a name-using faux-Irish pub in the same city. Only Canada would honour its sole political assassination victim with a pub celebrating another nation's image.
American humourist Sarah Vowell laments the obscurity into which assassinated U.S. Presidents William McKinley and James Garfield have fallen. They have nothing on D'Arcy McGee. They've been overshadowed by the killing of far better presidents such as Lincoln and Kennedy; the competition is tough in the States. McGee may never have held equivalent office in Canada, but he has no competition in these particular sweepstakes. Yet today he is at least as forgotten as Garfield and McKinley.
Let us hope some Canadian writer gives McGee the treatment that Vowell gives the two Americans, for she has brought them out of the mists and made them vivid and even relevant to our times.
Vowell takes her inspiration from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, about which she raves in a 17-page Preface that is easily the worst section of her book. It reads like the blog of a self-absorbed motormouth, chattering about emails and omigods and "my friend Bennett" and "this guy Sam" and "my friend Jack". It would be churlish to advise readers to skip the Preface, however, because this section also contains some of her best lines. Vowell is an experienced late-show writer and tosses out genre jokes such as: "It's one of the few perks of assassination. In death, you get upgraded into a saint no matter how much people hated you in life." And this: "Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot." And here: "While I am obsessed with death, I am against it."
Being "only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins ... than I am astonished by the men who run for president," she sets out on a "pilgrimage" to see the "relics" of three murdered presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
The journey begins at the reconstructed shrine of the Ford Theatre where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Between her amusing take on the musical 1776 which happens to be playing there when she visits, she somewhat puzzlingly rails against the rebuilding of the site of "one of the most repugnant moments in American history just so morbid looky-loos like me could sign up for April 14, 1865, as if it were some kind of assassination fantasy camp. So how sick is that?"
Sick or not, what follows is a lengthy but entertaining account of her visits to various displays and historic sites relating to Lincoln's murder. Starting at the boarding house where the conspirators met, she slips in a side-trip to Alaska to view the "insult comedy" totem pole dishonouring William Seward (Lincoln's Secretary of State and an intended fellow-victim), then veers over to the Washington D.C. boarding-house of the conspirators, going from there to the house of Henry and Clara Rathbone, Lincoln's companions that fatal evening, and then heads for the medical museum that houses a shard of Lincoln's skull in addition to his autopsy report. Then she's off to Maryland in search of Dr. Samuel Mudd's house, a side-trip so difficult that Vowell is immediately persuaded of Mudd's collusion in the conspiracy, since a wounded and fleeing Booth couldn't possibly have found the house in the darkness of night unless he was already thoroughly familiar with it from previous trips. That, in turn, inspires Vowell to the climax of the chapter: a trip to Mudd's prison on an isolated island in the Dry Tortugas.
It is at this point that Vowell's shortcomings start to surface. Ostensibly, all of the pilgrimages undertaken in Assassination Vacation form a search for substantiation of her belief in America and her/its creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The underlying seriousness of this purpose is indicated by her regular references to the present; in the midst of recounting the miserable conditions of Mudd's prison, for example, she suddenly realizes it is almost within viewing distance of the current terrorist prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
The problem is that her reaction to this coincidence is not a soul-searching reflection on, say, the American passion for disproportionate vengeance, or its schizophrenic ability to simultaneously celebrate and deplore its own violations of human rights. Fleeing from such deep thoughts, she goes home to New York, clicks on the Amnesty International website, and "think[s] of Dr. Mudd at Fort Jefferson, digging at the swamp that was his floor." That's all?
The Lincoln section of the book concludes with a visit to the Freedmen's Memorial, where Vowell gushes over abolitionist Frederick Douglass's eulogy for the fallen President:

"Frederick Douglass, by calling forth Lincoln the man, by mapping how time and circumstance and experience changed him and deepened him and emboldened him to not just say the right thing and not just personally do the right thing, but make right the law, is the most meaningful of all possible tributes."
It is as though Vowell, grasping her own limits, abandoned the original aim of seeking reaffirmation of her belief in America, in favour of following Douglass's example of "mapping" the times, circumstances, and experiences that changed the fates of three presidents, their killers, and other interested parties.
The Lincoln "mapping" is clearly intended to be the showpiece of the book; and if it fails as a substantiation of "the American creed", it does succeed as a "mapping". The Garfield and McKinley chapters are a lot briefer, but because they have not been mined by others as thoroughly as Lincoln's history has been, they are also a lot fresher.
Vowell is probably the only person ever to make James Garfield something more than a bland cipher whose extremely foreshortened term was bookended by the equally colourless Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur. She starts off hilariously with a bemused recounting of his slow death as one of the first to get the celebrity death treatment from the American media; the progression of his blood poisoning was relayed to a breathless public as if "a movie star in a tuxedo were slowly opening the Best Picture envelope at the Academy Awards."
Dull compromise-candidate though he was, Garfield had grand ideas about the presidential role and lamented the political shenanigans that prevented him from implementing them. These shenanigans were "an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power"-words that Vowell uses to describe not Canada's Parliament in May 2005 but the New York Customs House in the 1870s. The machinations that ended up putting Garfield in the White House, to be followed by Chester Arthur (who was transformed by that office from chief of Customs House corruption to its cleanser), make for surprisingly enjoyable reading.
Even more fun is to be had when Vowell turns her attention to Charles Guiteau, Garfield's assassin, and the free-love commune in which he lived for five years. Guiteau was a happy lunatic, cheerfully full of himself despite his complete lack of success in all endeavours, including his seemingly impossible failure to get laid in the commune. His trial was a one-man precursor to the Three Stooges' Disorder In the Court as it might have been written by poetaster James ("Ode To the Mammoth Cheese") McIntyre.
Equally weird was the fact that someone dug up the train-station floor tile upon which Garfield bled after being shot and donated it to Garfield's son, who in turn kept it for twenty-eight years before donating it to the Smithsonian Museum-which, astonishingly, still keeps it on public display. But then, his contemporaries seemed to have had a thing about literally pulling up train-related items in honour of Garfield: having built a special spur to ease his journey to his Long Beach summer house, the citizens tore up the spur after his death and built a tribute house from the wood.
In Vowell's hands, William McKinley, instead of being merely the only man to die in Buffalo of something other than boredom, becomes the prototype for George W. Bush and a most appallingly condescending "uplifter". Like Bush, McKinley insisted upon a personal God-given mandate as justification for the military imposition of "regime change" in much weaker countries (Cuba, Panama, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico- a list far longer than one expects from a president so overlooked by history).
Rather than McKinley, it's his Vice-President and successor, Teddy Roosevelt, whom we picture as the Ultimate Imperialist President, thanks to the assiduous cultivation of his own image as a rough-and-tumble "adventurer". Vowell presents both sides of the surprisingly complex Roosevelt: the man's man typified by his hellbent-for-leather "Night Ride To the Presidency", and the ardent social reformer whose aristocratic upbringing made noblesse oblige a dominant element of his drive and ambition.
Roosevelt's alter ego was Leon Czolgosz, McKinley's assassin, a morose loser from the very kind of desperately poor immigrant worker-family that TR wanted to help. Like John Hinckley fixating on Jodie Foster, he fixated on Emma Goldman; he wanted the exciting life of a celebrity anarchist he thought she was leading, and convinced himself that he could attain both it and her love by killing the President. In a true Hollywood twist, he posthumously gained fame through the fictionalized movie of his electrocution, made by Thomas Edison as a bizarre public-relations stunt in defence of his Direct Current electricity against George Westinghouse's upstart Alternating Current. It's too tempting to add: Only in America.
The postscript of Assassination Vacation takes us to Vowell's "favourite place in the world", the Lincoln Memorial. Predictably, she uses this setting to review the lessons of her pilgrimage, but again she shows herself to be a superficial mapper rather than an epistemological analyst. That is, she reports on rallies and gatherings held at the Memorial but cannot come up with any reflections more profound than the atrociously clunky statement that it "serves as our national Tupperware, reliable and empty, waiting to be filled with potluck whatever." Yeah, right: whatever.
It could be argued that Vowell is a comedian and should not be expected to analyze the American psyche through the lens of presidential assassinations. But that's explicitly what she set out to do. She accumulated facts, interviews, and observations with admirable dedication, only to demonstrate little if any ability to unpack their meaning.
The comedy, moreover, is typical of her generation (she's 35) and of talk-shows: smartass, self-referential, frequently quite funny but also frequently immature. It is regularly misused as a tool to undermine a moment of genuine emotion or impact. A terrific throw-away line ("I had written 'Cemetery Road' in black ink on my hand to remind me that's the road the cemetery is on") is followed by a juvenile mood-spoiler such as, "In the afternoon, Mr and Mrs Lincoln took a carriage ride, both of them vowing to lighten up a little now that the war was over."
Jokes like these are ephemeral. What will be remembered from Assassination Vacation are the random images Vowell manages to convey every so often, surprising information that helps bring the past to light if not to meaning. Samuel Mudd, selflessly doctoring prisoners dying of yellow fever, yet also attempting a certain-death escape rather than tolerate the presence of black troops on the prison-island. Tough-guy Teddy Roosevelt responding to Jacob Riis's book on New York immigrant poverty with the simple question, "How can I help?" James Garfield, a bibliophile fretting through a congressional meeting because he can't wait to get back home to a new 26-volume set of Goethe's works.
But then, D'Arcy McGee published over 300 of his own poems and helped broker the deal that created a country. Somebody should build that man a better memorial than a pub!

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