Katherine Harris, Meet Alexander Graham Bell

When the difference between the loser and the winner in a presidential election is 400-odd votes, one’s mind is apt to ponder the provisional nature of all human events. For want of a hanging chad, and so forth. To cut the tension of waiting, Chatterbox has been thumbing through the recently published Almost History, an anthology of historic documents (edited by Roger Bruns of the National Archives) addressing things that didn’t happen, or demonstrating how things that should have happened didn’t, or demonstrating how things that shouldn’t have happened did … you get the idea. Much of the book has to do with U.S. presidents. There is Richard Nixon’s 1937 job application to the FBI, which was rejected. There is then-Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s unused note from June 5, 1944, accepting all “blame or fault” for D-Day’s failure. There is an unsent February 1950 letter from President Harry Truman to Joe McCarthy stating that McCarthy’s rant about communist infiltration of the State Department “shows conclusively that you are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States.” There is the speech John F. Kennedy failed to deliver to at the Dallas Trade Mart on Nov. 22, 1963 (“The United States is a peaceful nation”). Future editions will possibly include an unused concession speech by either George W. Bush or Al Gore. Or perhaps they will include a sampling of the documents filed today with the Florida Supreme Court by the two candidates and by Katherine Harris, Florida’s dragon-lady secretary of state (who might merit a chapter of her own).

The best nugget in Bruns’ book has to do with Alexander Graham Bell’s role in elevating Chester A. Arthur to the presidency. As you may recall, Arthur’s predecessor, James Garfield, was shot but not immediately killed by the bullet fired at him on July 2, 1881, by “frustrated office seeker” Charles J. Guiteau. Doctors spent several days trying to figure out where the bullet had lodged. This was extremely difficult because the X-ray machine had not yet been invented. Basically, the doctors had to keep cutting Garfield open and poking around. Bell showed up at the White House with an experimental metal detector he’d devised with Simon Newcomb, another scientist, using sound-amplification technology adapted from the telephone. Bell had previously used it to find bullets lodged in the bodies of Civil War veterans and thought this noninvasive technique would work on Garfield, too. But when Bell tried to use the machine on Garfield, it didn’t work because, unbeknownst to Bell, Garfield was lying on a coil-spring mattress (apparently still a novelty in 1881). The doctors cut Garfield open one more time, Garfield’s heart gave out, and he died. Had Bell known that Garfield was lying on a newfangled mattress–or, alternatively, had Garfield not been pampered with such luxuriantly up-to-date bedding in the first place–Garfield might have served out his presidential term. (To read two accounts of all this that are even more gratifyingly detailed than Bruns,’ click here and here.)