NEAL CONAN, host:
When it comes to political brush fires, author Sarah Vowell prefers them at a comfortable, historic remove. Vowell's essays, bookish but funny ruminations on everything from banal Americana to Abraham Lincoln, read like history textbooks you wish you'd been assigned in your ninth-grade civics class. For years, her fans have tuned in to Public Radio International's "This American Life" and read books like "Take the Cannoli" to get their Vowell fix. Her latest book is the aptly named "Assassination Vacation." True to form, it's a curious chronicle of a two-and-a-half-year road trip to historical sites linked to the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley.
If you'd like to ask Sarah Vowell about her new book, about her career or her self-proclaimed nerddom, give us a call at (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is email@example.com.
And joining us now from NPR's bureau in New York City is Sarah Vowell.
Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
SARAH VOWELL (Author, "Assassination Vacation"): Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Abraham Lincoln you could understand. William McKinley, an important figure in American politics. James Garfield?
VOWELL: James Garfield--what's not to like? The book is about the first three political assassinations, and Garfield is kind of stuck in the middle there in a lot of different ways. But he was assassinated not long after he became president, so I think that's one reason he's kind of forgotten. But I have to say that was probably the chapter that was the most fun for me to work on, just because there was so much discovery involved. And he also had a fairly fascinating assassin, so...
CONAN: And I'm curious; you trace a lot of it to a--and we're talking about confirmation battles in the Congress today; boy, was there a confirmation battle at the heart of this particular crime.
VOWELL: Yeah, good old civil service reform was the long way comin'. It's kind of a complicated story. I'll try and, like, be brief. But it kind of has to do a lot with the New York Customs House, which, at the time, most of the income to the federal government came through the New York Customs House. This was before there was an income tax. And the customs inspector of New York was--that was the most lucrative job in the entire federal government and, I mean, there was just so much graft going on in the New York Customs House; it was just so sleazy and (technical difficulties) the customs inspector were just--they were just robbing the government blind. And whoever controlled that place controlled all the money and controlled a lot of political donations to the state (technical difficulties) machine in New York.
And Garfield's nemesis was his fellow Republican, Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was the boss of New York. And Conkling was in this faction of the Republican Party called the Stalwarts, and...
CONAN: They had better nicknames in those days.
VOWELL: Yeah, well, there was the Stalwarts vs. the Blaineiacs(ph), who were their opponents within the party. And Conkling's best friend was Chester Arthur, who was Garfield's vice president and who had also been the customs inspector of New York. And there was this crazy lunatic named Charles Guiteau who was also a Stalwart in the Republican Party. And when Garfield defied Conkling in the New York machine to put his own nominee for the customs inspector before the Senate and won, then the Stalwarts just thought this was the end of the Republican Party, which, to them, meant the end of the union, you know. And so one reason that Charles Guiteau, the assassin, assassinates Garfield is so that Chester Arthur can become president.
CONAN: His pal, he thinks, Chester Arthur. He also writes a letter to General William Tecumseh Sherman: `I have just shot the president. I shot him several times, as I wished him to go as easily as possible.' More on that later. `His death was a political necessity. I'm a lawyer, theologian and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with General Grant and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I'm going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.'
VOWELL: Yeah. This guy has the nerve to order around William Tecumseh Sherman, maybe the scariest general in the history of the United States Army. I mean, he is like a kind of comical character, Charles Guiteau, because he's just so stuck on himself. I mean, he had written that letter before he shot the president, and he shoots the president in the train station and is immediately arrested. And the cop, the DC cop who arrests him, is carting him off to jail, and Guiteau asks the cop, `Are you a Stalwart?' And the guy admits, `Yeah, I am.' And Guiteau says, `Well, I'm going to make you chief of police someday,' like he really has no idea, you know, that his life is over. He thinks he's saving the country and that he'll be this hero and, you know, he, of course, is hanged.
CONAN: Our guest is Sarah Vowell. Her book is "Assassination Vacation." (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us.
Bruce is with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
BRUCE (Caller): Hi there.
BRUCE: How are you?
CONAN: I'm good.
BRUCE: Oh, wonderful. I'm doing good, too. Hey, I grew up in Mentor, Ohio, and I grew up about, oh, within a quarter mile of President Garfield's home. And...
VOWELL: Sure. I go to the--that's one of the places I go to in the book, the Garfield farm.
BRUCE: Yes. It's beautiful now, isn't it?
VOWELL: I'm sorry.
BRUCE: When I grew up, though, it was all in disarray. The home was rotting away, and there were things out in the--we used to rummage through the barns as kids because it was just falling apart. Now this--I grew up during the '60s, and I was just kind of wondering, you know, when we saw things like those funeral procession wagons and the headdresses for the horses out there just rotting away, and I thought when I went back a few years ago to my grandmother's funeral, it would just be a total destruction, but I was amazed to see they had rebuilt it.
VOWELL: No, it's been quite lovingly restored, and it's an actually--it's a wonderful place to go, and also very historic because, you know, that was back in the days of the front-porch campaign, when it was considered beneath a presidential candidate to actually go out campaigning, so the voters would come to them. And so Garfield had to entertain all the voters who would show up at his house every day, and he'd have to, like, come in from his fields and interest them. You know, and then his wife would have to serve the (technical difficulties) refreshments and stuff.
CONAN: This was the front-porch campaign.
VOWELL: There were a few of them. McKinley had one, too, actually.
BRUCE: There was quite a few presidents from Ohio, I understand. But we moved away when I was young, but I do remember all of that. And I was really amazed go back and see it, though. It's beautiful.
VOWELL: Yeah, there are some things I think you can learn just by visiting these sites and seeing the actual objects. Like, for example, there's this kind of squashy reading chair that when I was being shown around--you know, Garfield, one, he was kind of hard to get to know because he's such a paragon of virtue, really. But poring over his diaries and reading between the lines, I realized that he was a reader, like, he was a junkie of books. And you can see his chair that he sort of, like, jauntily, you know, threw his knees up over and would read his books and kind of close out the world. And then you can see his library. And I saw the volumes of his friend, Charles Sumner, the senator's books, but it's an incomplete set because Garfield died before all the books were published. So--and it was...
CONAN: He just had 11 of the 15 volumes.
CONAN: He couldn't find out--the pulse-pounding climax was just coming up, and he...
CONAN: ...you know, never figured out what happened at the end.
Bruce, thanks very much for the phone call.
BRUCE: One quick question. Did you spend much time there around the area, though?
BRUCE: Did you just go to the home, or did you go to, like, the Mormon chapel there and things like that?
VOWELL: I went to...
BRUCE: Did you go to any other...
VOWELL: I actually spent a bit of time in the cemetery in Cleveland, which is not far from there, in the Garfield tomb which was rather impressive.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, another really interesting stop on the trail of the Garfield assassination--and I think you're guessing I found this pretty interesting, too--was the Oneida colony in upstate New York.
CONAN: What a weird place.
VOWELL: Very. That's the--I went there because Guiteau, the Garfield assassin, spent a few years there. And it's still--it's a museum, and the mansion house where this religious commune took place at--that building, is still there. And people still live there. And it's an apartment building and museum and hotel, and I spent a night there. And this community--I think, you know, we all studied utopian communities for maybe three minutes in American history in 11th grade or something, but...
CONAN: I remember that paragraph, yeah.
VOWELL: Yeah. But they never say exactly the kinky stuff that went on there, you know. And this place--they called what they were doing group marriage. It's where the term `free love,' I think, was invented. But the assassin, the Garfield assassin, lived there for a few years. And, you know, unfortunately for him, the free love had--the sex had to be consensual, and he was not a popular person. His--Charles Guiteau's nickname there was Charles "Get Out." But it was this fascinating place, you know, very communitarian. There was a lot of, you know, sleeping around going on, but they saw themselves as a religious community. And it was pretty--there was one guru cult leader guy, as there always is, but it was fairly egalitarian, but for women especially.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, Betsy. Betsy's with us from Austin, Texas.
BETSY (Caller): Hi. Hi, Sarah. I'm a big fan of yours.
VOWELL: Hi, Betsy.
BETSY: I'm sorry that I missed you when you were here at Book People in Austin. I have a question about...
VOWELL: I was wondering where you were.
CONAN: That's a great bookstore.
BETSY: I saw your pictures online, though, so I felt like I was there.
BETSY: I'm wondering if the trek that you did--I heard on a program a few years ago--with your sister, where you followed the Trail of Tears.
BETSY: I'm wondering how that trek kind of inspired this one for your book, and if it all that played into your desire to do this, or if it sparked an interest in it.
VOWELL: Yeah, completely. Actually, that story is sort of the story that changed my life. I had been doing sort of personal kind of essays and documentaries for "This American Life" for a few years, but I think it was about seven years ago, and my sister and I, we drove the Cherokee Trail of Tears our ancestors were on, so we drove from Georgia to Oklahoma. And I'd never done anything like that, never really written about American history very much before. And I loved working on that story, and I loved visiting the sites, and I loved doing the research and reading the books and going through a bunch of, like, boring papers and chronicles and trying to figure it out and make it halfway coherent and entertaining.
But it also seemed like a very, like, accurate way to talk about the United States, because we were talking about this horrible story, this genocide, and a lot of American history is pretty grim going, but we were doing it through tourism. And I mean, America's really good at violence, but we're also really good at fun. And there was something that happened on that trip--like, the contrast between telling this horrible historical story and being on a fun road trip with my twin sister that seemed like a very, like, just accurate, rich way to talk about the United States of America. And I've kind of being doing stuff like that ever since, so I would say that, like, had a huge influence on my life and certainly on this assassination book.
BETSY: Yeah. I really enjoyed the commentary on the kitsch of all these tourist stops. And I'm from Oklahoma, too, so I really appreciated that program. I remembered it ever since. And I'm looking forward to reading your book.
VOWELL: Thank you.
CONAN: Betsy, thanks for the call.
BETSY: Thanks. Bye-bye.
CONAN: By the way, you can hear Sarah Vowell read from her book on our Web site at npr.org. You can also hear the vocal stylings of "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart playing the role of President James Garfield. I know he's probably wanted to play it his whole life.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to ask you--these three assassinations--there is one character who plays a role in all three who you write about, and that's the son of President Lincoln, Robert Todd Lincoln.
VOWELL: Yeah, Robert Todd Lincoln. I call him Jinxy McDeath because he's this cursed figure who was there for all three of them. He just got to Washington the day his father was assassinated and was there at his deathbed when he died. And then Robert Todd Lincoln is in the train station with Garfield because was Garfield's secretary of War, and he's just getting off the train in Buffalo when McKinley was shot. So he was there all three times, and he was just, you know, cursed. And, you know, because he was Abraham Lincoln's son, like, you know, he would get White House invitations from time to time. But after a while, you know, he was, like, `Oh, if only they knew, they wouldn't want me there.'
CONAN: Yeah, the Jonah of the business. But curiously enough, there is a member of the Booth family who saved a Lincoln. You tell that story, as well.
VOWELL: That's right. There are a lot of just eerie, spooky things happening around Abraham Lincoln's son and John Wilkes Booth's brother. And John Wilkes Booth and his big brother, Edwin Booth, were actors, very famous actors. And during the Civil War, somewhere in the middle of the Civil War, Robert Todd Lincoln, the young Robert Todd Lincoln, is on the train platform in Jersey City, I think it is, in New Jersey, and he slips and he falls down. And the train is coming, and he's about to--you know, he's down there on the tracks and he's about to die. And, like, someone reaches down and pulls him up by the collar and saves his life. And he recognizes him immediately; it's Edwin Booth. That would be, like, you know, if Tom Hanks saved my life on the subway this afternoon, you know. I mean, it was--and so he is the Booth who saved the Lincoln's life, yeah.
CONAN: Let's talk now with Ken. Ken's calling from Oakland, California.
KEN (Caller): Hi, Sarah. It's a fascinating and fun book, and thanks for writing it. But I have one question.
KEN: And, you know, I think, generally speaking, when you look at presidents that are assassinated, you can make a case that those that come after them have not really distinguished themselves very much, with the exception of one. And that has to do with McKinley's assassination, which, you know, brought TR to the forefront, Teddy Roosevelt. And I'd be interested to hear what your comments are on that, because it seems like without, you know, McKinley's assassination, we don't have one of the great presidents that ever served in the White House and, really, you know, just remade the entire presidency at a time when it was really needed.
VOWELL: Yeah. Well, I love writing about Theodore Roosevelt. I mean, he's just so, you know--one of my favorite things anyone ever said about him was in the introduction to his autobiography where this historian says, `He's our only president who was reading "Anna Karenina" while on a three-day search for cattle thieves, you know. And in my book, I get to tell the, like, swashbuckling tale of Roosevelt's night ride to the presidency when McKinley dies and Roosvelt's on top of the highest peak in the Adirondacks, and he has to ride down the mountain in the middle of the night on a buckboard and, like, you know, swoop into this little town to get on the train to Buffalo.
But yeah, of course. So that was kind of lucky for me that McKinley leads to Roosevelt. I mean, I think he's one of our most fascinating presidents and also, like, a true figure of moderation in a way that I admire, especially with regards to all the, you know, squabbles between labor and management. Like, he seems like a very solid voice on that.
But I guess I would disagree with you--I can see why maybe Andrew Johnson and, oh, Chester Arthur don't really stick out. But even though I don't write about John F. Kennedy and then his successor, Lyndon Johnson, I would say Johnson--of course, responsible for, you know, the further escalation of Vietnam, which I'm not very proud of, but also, you know, accomplished great things in terms of legislation in the Civil Rights Act and all those Great Society laws and, you know, the Voting Rights Act and stuff like that, which I think were partly passed as a kind of memorial to Kennedy. And that also happened with regards to the Garfield assassination because even though Chester Arthur isn't regarded as one of our great lights, he did pass a Civil Service Reform Act as a memorial to Garfield, which is kind of like getting us on the road to, you know, hiring civil servants who hopefully know what they're doing instead of just guys who gave a lot of money to their party. Luckily, that never happens anymore.
CONAN: Sarah Vowell, thanks very much.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.