When choosing a favorite presidential death, it’s important not to be seduced. While it is true that four U.S. presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy), their deaths are not automatically the most illuminating instances of executive mortality. For someone my age, the national trauma that was the televised murder of John F. Kennedy is now mostly associated with a bespectacled Kevin Costner running around Washington in an Oliver Stone conspiracy film (“JFK”). Even the figure of the assassin has, in our fickle national esteem, been somewhat redeemed by popularity: I may have been one of the three people in the country who enjoyed watching movie stars bend bullets as part of an ancient order of assassins in the movie “Wanted,” and I also—along with several million other people my age--own the bestselling videogame “Assassin’s Creed.” But that’s kind of beside the point.

The truth is that almost every presidential death is (often inadvertently) a meditation on some aspect of us as a people. More interestingly, these deaths are also often inadvertently poetic, in a sad way. Of the four presidents assassinated (all by gunshot), three of them were actually killed by the doctors trying to treat them. And though Abraham Lincoln, had his doctors not decided to blindly probe his brain for the bullet, would never have been more than a vegetable, William McKinley would have been saved and James Garfield would have made a full and complete recovery! Both McKinley and Garfield’s deaths also seem to catch the essential feeling of tragic irony our country seems to often find in itself. Even after Garfield’s younger (and actually correct) doctors had been vetoed by his older (and confused) doctors as to the location of the bullet, the metal detector they tried to use to locate it would have been successful, if they had thought to take the President off of the metal bedsprings he was laying on. Instead, they decided Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention was worthless and called it a day. And for those of you who doubt that this would become a theme, you might consider that only twenty feet from where McKinley lay, shot and bleeding, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, there sat an exciting, brand new technology that could have saved his life—the X-ray machine—but which nobody thought to use.

The point, however, is not the negligible stupidity of antiquated doctors or even of the presidents themselves. It may not have been the smartest presidential move ever for William Henry Harrison to give his inaugural address in the snow and freezing rain without a coat, but what killed him was the pneumonia that developed from that initial cold, the deadly symptoms of which—chills, fever—Harrison didn’t notice as he appeared at every one of the inaugural balls, dancing and drinking his way through his first night as Chief Executive. But who can help but imagine that the man from Indiana (before Indiana was a state) might have (understandably) chalked up the fever to the headiness of that night or of his new position and, moreover, was probably glad for the warmth. No, the point is that there is something grander at work here, a message maybe, spelled out on the collective, confused last sighs of our Commanders in Chief. John Quincy Adams, who outlined the legal framework that would eventually allow Lincoln to use his powers to abolish slavery, died of a stroke from overly exerting himself to shout out his “No!” vote in the House of Representatives on the issue of giving ceremonial swords to veterans of the Mexican War. Woodrow Wilson, the man who won the first world war for America, died of his fourth stroke when, after wrangling the entire governments of Europe into entering into his League of Nations, he couldn’t get his own U.S. Congress to agree to it.

So what? What’s the point? What, outside of the foibles of pre-modern American medicine and the semi-fatal consequences of Washington life, does all this have to do with anything?

To answer that, I’ll unveil the big kahuna: my favorite presidential death. On the fourth of July in 1850, Zachary Taylor got dressed to attend the dedication of the newly completed Washington Monument. He wore a black, high-collar suit and stood in the 110-degree heat for all the lengthy festivities, wildly overheating and suffering mild sunstroke. After the ceremony he ordered a bowl of cold cherries in iced milk to be brought so he could cool down. The extreme shock these chilled foods seems to have delivered to his system overwhelmed him. His organs began to shut down, one by one. Before long, he was dead.

This death, maybe of all the presidential deaths, seems ridiculous. And, in a way, it is. But what I like to think about is the hope he must have had for those cherries, bathed in that milk. Zach Taylor died because he wanted to cool down, and there was no great poetry in that. But there was something distinctly American, something about how we are constantly revealed to be a ridiculously hopeful people as well as a helplessly normal, often failing one. But that’s not really why it’s my favorite.

Yesterday a U.S. soldier was killed walking down a road south of Baghdad and a week before that thirty people were killed in the same place with a car bomb. Twenty years ago we funded a covert war against the Soviet Union so that the people of Afghanistan could stop being massacred and now we have to kill and be killed by them. Ten years ago two boys in Colorado walked into their high school during fourth hour and murdered 14 people and two years ago a boy in Virginia, citing the first two, walked into his college class and killed 32 more. Last week an African-American security guard was shot to death by an old white man simply for working at a museum built to remember the six million men, women and children a group of other white men murdered sixty years ago. This is our world, our age. The age of terror. And I think Zachary Taylor’s strange, sad demise seems to imply this truth; the unspeakable, unfair, utterly incomprehensible nature of the life and death of an American. There’s something about the ridiculousness of a man dying from a bowl of cherries in milk that feels a lot like the ridiculousness of living in a country of such constant, unintelligible death as my generation is being forced to try and understand. Or, at least, that’s how it seems to one American, to me, as I ready myself to go in the other room and watch another lobotomizing summer television show (“I Survived A Japanese Game Show” perhaps?) and for some reason can’t get the image of a cherry, lost in a vast, inconsolable sea of milk, out of my head.

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© 2009

My Favorite Presidential Death

Arna Hemenway