Nearly 1,000 days stretch between this Presidents' Day and the next presidential election. Yet already it is impossible to escape the maneuvers, machinations, and media coverage of men and women so consumed with winning the highest office in the land that the lust for power all but oozes from their pores. For as long as most of us can remember, the obsessive quest for the presidency has been an indelible feature of American politics. Try to envision a successful candidate for the White House who doesn't have that "fire in the belly": a candidate prepared to accept the job if it seeks him out, but not driven by such insatiable ambition that everything else pales by comparison. It would be easier to envision a team of unicorns.
And yet America once had such a president. He was James A. Garfield of Ohio, a remarkable individual who rose from grinding poverty to the presidency of the United States without ever thrusting himself forward as a candidate for election to anything. It is a shame that Americans don't know more about this gifted yet modest leader, as they doubtless would had he not been fatally shot by an assassin just four months after becoming president.
On the eve of Garfield's inauguration as the nation's 20th chief executive, he told a group of old friends: "This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day."
It was true. At every step of his political career, Garfield had to be urged to serve for the good of the country. He was first elected to Congress during the Civil War in 1862, while he was on active duty as a major general in the Union Army. The 31-year-old Garfield, a Republican and ardent abolitionist, "receiv[ed] nearly twice as many votes as his opponent, although he had done nothing to promote his candidacy," writes Candice Millard in Destiny of the Republic, her 2011 history of Garfield's election and tragic death. He didn't take his congressional seat for another year — and then only because President Lincoln pressed him to do so. "I have resigned my place in the army and have taken my seat in Congress," Garfield wrote in a letter home. "I did this with regret … [b]ut the President told me he dared not risk a single vote in the House."