Here’s the passage from Epitaph with Doc Holliday’s observation of the election of 1880, which brought James A. Garfield to the White House.
Hundreds of delegates and thousands of observers crammed into Chicago’s many-windowed Industrial Exposition Building and screamed themselves hoarse over which as-yet-unindicted criminal might best disserve the country. In the end, the field narrowed down to two men who were equally disliked and mistrusted, even by their fellow Republicans.
Ulysses Grant had left the White House three years earlier under a dense cloud of scandal; he was now ferociously backed by Roscoe Conkling – arguably the most corrupt politician in the nation. Which was saying something. Grant’s opponent for the Republican nomination was James Blaine, a man so sensationally consumed by the desire to attain the presidency that even his friends admitted he’d sacrifice anything –including honor and his firstborn child – on the altar of his ambition.
After thirty-six ballots, the Republican convention remained deadlocked, whirling between corrupt Scylla and vainglorious Charybdis. Fist fights broke out on the convention floor. Baroque insults were traded. There were threats and deals, betrayals and reprisals, high dudgeon and low comedy.
As entertainment, it was hard to beat, but just when it seemed the Democrats would win the White House by default, James Garfield emerged out of nowhere as a candidate and was nominated by acclamation.
“Who in hell is James Garfield?” people asked, and the answer was: a former college professor who’d taught Greek and Latin at Hiram College in Ohio and who’d risen to the rank of general in the Union army. Quiet, ethical and brilliant, Garfield tried repeatedly to dissuade the delegates, warning that he would do nothing to gain the office if they forced the nomination on him. He’d kept his word, too, traveling no further than his own front porch during the campaign…