method of lizzy

preservations… for posterity

Assassination Vacation

I enjoy Sarah Vowell’s witty observations, even if I don’t always agree with her politics. You may have heard Vowell on NPR, which is where I first made her acquaintance. In Assassination Vacation, we journey back to troubled times in American history: the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Curiously, there is only a sentence or two devoted to President Kennedy. Presumably Vowell does not focus on JFK because his administration and assassination is a relatively more recent event.

Writes Vowell about her interest in presidential assassins:

I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us- us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The
egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts…the assassins and the presidents invite the same question: Just who do you think you are?

To illustrate this point, consider the play that Charles Guiteau penned while he awaited execution:

The Almighty asks the newspapermen, “Why did you hound my man [Guiteau] to
death?”
“We did not believe he was your man.”
“No excuse. Go to Hell.”

Who can not find such mania at least a little bit fascinating?

Approximately half of the book is devoted to Lincoln. I learned many things that I was surprised that I didn’t know. For instance, that Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth) once saved Robert Todd Lincoln’s life. Or that Robert Todd would later be present at the assassinations of his father, Garfield and McKinley. Or that alleged accomplices of Booth were sent to Dry Tortugas, which sounds like it was pretty miserable back in the day. Today it makes a nice tourist attraction, and I was kicking myself for not visiting when I had the chance.

Speaking of visiting historical sights, Vowell visits many of them throughout the duration of the book. I’ve also visited many historical sights, a result of being the offspring of a father who is a history buff and collector of places. As Vowell wrote of Appomattox, Harpers Ferry, and Ford Theatre, I was able to visualize these places. It was unexpectedly nice.

This book reminded me that history is fun and sometimes it’s even funny. Yet so much hangs in the balance, and the decisions of those we elect have a domino effect throughout generations. Vowell rights critically of McKinley, and rightfully so. McKinley began interventionist wars in Cuba and the Philippines, and in the past few decades we’ve seen additional interventionist wars, not to mention scores of other interventionist actions. One can’t help but wonder the root cause of such travesty. When did this become what our nation is known for?

It’s been far too long since I last undertook any study of history. In fact, the year was 2000, it was summer and I took a course on American history since the Civil War. Since then any study of history has been mostly accidental, and that’s a shame. I’m a fan of biographies, so I will try to read a few in the coming months. Recommendations welcome.

Genre: History
Source: Library browsing

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January 22, 2007 - Posted by | books

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