Caveat Emptor, Emperor
During President Trump’s commencement speech to the graduating class of young Coast Guardsmen and women, he lingered momentarily on the state of his media malcontent. It's a sore spot he's always ready to explore. This time, as he did previously at Liberty University, he lamented about the media's unfriendliness toward him. His gripe was that "No politician in history...has been treated worse or more unfairly" than he.
As is the case with most of what trickles through Trump's lips, the line quickly materialized as a meme. It spared little time finding its way to the late-night sketch shows and audiences ate up the cheap chuckles. I was disappointed, though, to see all of the hosts grabbing only for the low-hanging fruit. The easy joke was to compare Trump's "mistreatment" to that of Abraham Lincoln. While we all know how Lincoln met his end (a Southern dramatist named Booth, hell-bent on killing the "tyrant") there have been so many other ill-fated politicians throughout history. Closest to our hearts and memories are the Kennedys--Bobby or Jack--or the late Nelson Mandela, but others were treated just as badly.
To fully appreciate mistreatment while in office, you needn't look further than America's presidents. You'll know of at least two who were assassinated in office: Lincoln and Kennedy. Their brilliance in life led to their legends in death, but there are two other lesser-known presidents who died in similar ways. One was William McKinley, who was shot twice by the anarchist, Leon Czolgosz at an expo in Buffalo, New York. At first, it didn't seem McKinley's wounds would prove fatal. This optimistic prognosis was short-lived, however. After a week's convalescence he died a gangrenous death.
When compared with McKinley, Garfield's final days were far worse. By this, I mean they were prolonged and brutally tortuous. After having been shot twice by Charles Guiteau, Garfield languished for two months as unsophisticated physicians attempted to locate and remove the bullet's fragments. Their efforts were in vain. Not only did the doctors guess incorrectly about the bullet's trajectory, they prodded Garfield's viscera with unsterile fingers. Garfield eventually succumbed to a septic end.
The mistreatment of American politicians didn't end with Garfield or McKinley. The latter's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was himself the recipient of some pain. While en route to a speech in Milwaukee in 1912, Roosevelt was shot in the chest from a quite close distance. The proximity of the shooter and the vital spot he had hit led many on the scene to fear for the former president’s life. Unbeknownst to those worried souls, however, old Teddy would be just fine. As I mentioned, Roosevelt was on his way to deliver a speech. It’s no surprise, then, that stuffed tightly in the breast pocket of his thick overcoat was a folded, fifty-page speech. Roosevelt was known to be as garrulous as he was rugged, and it was his written word that saved the day. Not only did he survive the attempt, but he went on to deliver his ninety-minute, life-saving speech. All this, with a bullet nestled above his fourth rib. His voice may have been dyspneic and at times weak, but he delivered it in full. His staff watched him with unease while Teddy refused medical attention until every last word was spoken.
While we’re on the subject of 1912, we can’t forget about Eugene V. Debs. Rightly or wrongly, he was treated far worse than most politicians in his day. Debs was the infamous Socialist and labor unionist who vied for the presidency five times. A constant thorn in the establishment’s side, he accomplished unexpected political feats. He gathered a relatively small but fervid group of supporters. He organized a cripplingly successful labor strike on the Pullman Company’s rails.
Eventually, much to President Wilson’s delight, Debs was incarcerated for a decade and disenfranchised for a lifetime following the guilty verdict handed down in the case that bears his name. By speaking out against America’s intervention in World War I, Debs infringed the Espionage Act of 1917—an act whose precedence lay in the Supreme Court’s Schenck v United States decision decreed earlier that year. The Espionage Act was later repealed and Debs’ sentence commuted, but his popularity never suffered; the socialist stalwart received nearly one million votes while behind bars.
We remain for now on the topic of espionage, as this next pair of politicians add their names to our list. Both hail from Russia, where a day seldom passes without some politician being mistreated, beaten, or killed. Leon Trotsky was one such politician. The sober historian might say he had it coming, what with his radically recalcitrant life and his baffling resilience. Born Lev Davidovich, he was banished to Siberia more than once. Any man who makes it out of that frigid void once is a man worth noticing. But twice? A man perhaps worth fearing.
Trotsky cleverly escaped, in part by adopting the nom de guerre for which he’s now known, and went on to rally the October Revolution in 1918. He teamed up with Vladimir Lenin and the two led the Red Army during the Bolshevik’s coup d’état. When the dust settled and the U.S.S.R. was entrenched, Lenin was looking for a successor. Trotsky was an option, but was ultimately skipped over for a younger Joseph Stalin, who would go on to rule Russia from 1929 till 1953.
Again, as before, Trotsky succeeded in making himself a persona non-grata with the incoming regime and was banished from the U.S.S.R. He landed in Mexico in what was to become his final exile. While resting at his home, perhaps enjoying a tropical siesta the likes of which he’d never seen in Siberia, Trotsky was attacked by a Soviet henchman named Ramón Mercader. Mercader was given orders from the very top of the Soviet regime, with Stalin himself giving the green-light for this assassination abroad. Mercader chose of all cudgels an ice pick—perhaps the oddest instrument one could find lying around Mexico. The immediate impact wasn’t fatal, and Trotsky fought back, but the trauma was too much. Trotsky died the next day.
From the revolutionist in Trotsky we move to the royalist, the Grand Duke of Russia Sergei Alexandrovich. The two were contemporaries during the Russian Revolution of 1905, a time of unprecedented tumult. Trotsky was a young dissident and Alexandrovich a doomed aristocrat, being that he was Tsar Nicholas II’s uncle. Alexandrovich’s family ties and regal relations made him a prime target in the streets of Moscow, where his avuncular nature mattered much less than it did in the royal courts. Never hesitant to advance a cause, the apparatchiks in revolt threw a nitroglycerin bomb in Alexandrovich’s lap while he sat idle in his carriage. The Tsar’s uncle was strewn about so completely, that when forensic police arrived on the scene, his body was almost beyond recognition.
The Tsar didn’t fare much better. Nicholas II’s reign had ended, and in the most macabre of circumstances, his life was about to as well. The ousted emperor and his family were promised sanctuary, but such promises can’t be kept when the Bolshevik beckons. He and his family were taken by force and brought to the Ipatiev House basement. There, the former royals were fired upon execution-style at close range. The Bolsheviks proved that the highest office has its drawbacks, a proof history will reiterate time and again.
Thanks to our favorite bard William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar’s career and assassination are all-too well-known. Our thanks can be extended for the telling of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Less widely known, though, is the fate suffered by Philip II—the mighty Macedonian who swept from the rugged north into the affected south. History loves him for the son he left behind (Alexander the Great—although ancient Greece and the Near East may disagree), but Philip was no slouch in his own right. Not only did he defeat the Persian emperor Darius III, he succeeded in annexing the all-powerful Athenian state. But it wasn’t fighting in the field that led to this war-hardened politician’s demise. Rather, like Clytemnestra was for Agamemnon, it was a woman’s wrath that brought Philip down. He’d already lost an eye on his wife Olympias’ behalf (the punishment for his voyeurism, for having seen her in bed with a god), but he was bound to lose his life. Fearing a crisis of ascension, Olympias ordered an assassin to take Philip’s life, along with that of his mistress and new son born of the extra-marital affair. Olympias, you see, only wanted what was best for her and Philip’s first-born, Alexander. If only Alexander hadn’t been such a success, Philip might’ve earned our deeper sympathies.
I mentioned Darius III as a man who, like many before and after, succumbed to Philip II’s phalanxes and spears. However, unlike those making up his vast Persian outfits who fell in the fields, Darius was able to skirt capture until the very end. It was one of Darius’ own, a social-climbing peasant, and not the Macedonian conquerors who offered a fatal blow. The peasant cut off Darius’ head, thinking he’d secure Alexander’s good grace and perchance some form compensatory rank. Instead, Alexander was furious and ordered the peasant be put to death. In Alexander’s mind, no monarch, no matter how cowardly he may be, deserved to die in such ignominy. If only Alexander had followed his own prescription and not taken to the bottle, which ultimately led to the downfall of Europe and Asia’s greatest king.
Not far from Alexander’s reach, but far removed in history, was Bleda the Hun on the Hungarian steppe. Bleda, you’ll quickly see, shares his name with a younger and more-accomplished brother. Attila and brother Bleda had a workable relationship for time, but fraternity will yield to ones urges for monarchy. While on a hunting trip, Bleda was assassinated from behind. The hunt complete, Attila moved to consolidate power in his name alone and any thought of a diarchy died.
Moving southward from the steppe, Joannes the Usurper lived in Byzantium in the 5th century AD—not long after Attila left his crumbling colonies to inept sons. Unlike Attila’s, Joannes’ claim over the territory was suspect at best. It didn’t take long for the Usurper to himself be usurped and tossed to the gruesome whims of a frightful death. First, Joannes’ hand was cleaved. Next, his bloody body was strapped to a donkey and made to traipse about the hippodrome. In the third act, before a well-attended audience filling the stadium, he was made to re-enact the details of his own demise like an actor on the stage. His clemency was his coup de grâce, which came by way of a blade to his neck.
From Byzantium we move east toward India. There, Attila’s soldiers never arrived and Alexander’s never sieged. The first was due to geography, the second to obstinacy (the threat of armed Elephants would be enough to send even a lesser army back to Greece). In India, we find the Gandhis. First there was Mahatma, that paragon of pacifism, vegetarianism, and national pride. Mahatma was murdered for holding Pakistani sympathies at point blank range. He was killed by a Hindu hitman, who thought Mahatma’s stance on Pakistan a profanity and thus a capital offense.
Of the same name but of no immediate relation to Mahatma, we turn next to Indira Gandhi. She was given the name Gandhi not as a matter of consanguinity, but rather as one of credibility. Without it, she might not have succeeded in becoming India’s first and only female Prime Minister to date. Indira’s ideological distance from Mahatma’s was stark. She was considered ruthless and bellicose, where Mahatma was docile and philosophical. However different they may have been in life, they shared a similar death. Indira was murdered by two countrymen—bodyguards no less—after a speech in which she uttered the ominous line, “I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow”.
Such is the precarious side of politics. The prestige, the power, and the ability to affect change has lured many men and women from every century to buy in. But then as now, the warning on the label remains the same: Caveat emptor, Mr. or Mrs. Emperor!