Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley: The Tour

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I approached this book with trepidation. I know of Sarah Vowell from “This American Life” on NPR, a show everyone in the world seems to love—except for me.

But this book, I loved.

Who knew Sarah Vowell and I were fellow travelers on the road of presidential trivia geekery? It’s true.

Vowell even addresses the problem I often face:
“Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn’t hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don’t bring up McKinley. Don’t bring up McKinley.” (p. 13)*

Here Vowell tracks down well-known and the barely-ever-heard-of locations linked to the first three presidential assassinations: those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. That sounds grim indeed, but she’s a delightful companion who brings levity to the subject, even as she addresses it with a respect that is almost touching.

For example, she writes of the suffering by James Garfield after he was shot and was dying, and she remarks that it’s tacky that we have forgotten him. True story. I’m a big old fan of Lincoln, but you really have to feel for Garfield and McKinley, who are not remembered well (to put it lightly).

Terrific book.

*The other day a friend was wondering, randomly, whether former presidents could hold office after leaving the White House. So she and her husband called, and I got to hold forth on the wonders of William Howard Taft (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!) and John Quincy Adams (Congressman who collapsed on the floor of the House and died!) I think they may have regretted placing that phone call.