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The dreadful ordeal

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  • Evelyn Radecke
    Hi, Fellow-Appreciators, Welcome, new Member! Dear Ken, Mentioning Polk s surgery in your review of Seigenthaler s book you asked two questions: How would this
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 2, 2006
      Hi, Fellow-Appreciators,

      Welcome, new Member!

      Dear Ken,

      Mentioning Polk's surgery in your review of Seigenthaler's book you
      asked two questions:

      How would this trauma have affected Polk mentally and emotionally?
      What, if any, effect would it have had on his leadership decisions?

      This first question gave me much thinking and it took me some time to
      put my thoughts in order. Sorry for being so long again.

      In my opinion the answer to this question depends on the answer to
      another question: What were the predominat features of Polk's
      character before he fell ill with stones? Unfortunately we hardly
      know anything. So we cannot be sure whether or how, and how much, the
      experience of painful disease and horrible treatment changed him. I
      think that if anything traumatized or damaged Polk it was not so much
      the first-class treatment, but the embarrassing, painful,
      protracting, aggravating disease with its horrible prognosis.

      dwells on the special virtues of Polk's surgeon. He was not only
      practically and theoretically competent but also able to fortify and
      reassure his patients by hearing them out with compassion and giving
      them as much information as possible. So he did much more than many
      surgeons of today to spare his patients unnecessary anguish and
      stress. As a Congressman, Polk thanked McDowell "for his cure as well
      as for his care and concern", describing his former self as a "meagre
      boy, with pallid cheeks, oppressed and worn down with disease."
      Though I could not find this letter, it should exist. Not only the
      web but also the National American Biography mention it. I assume
      that McDowell's care enabled Polk to face his ordeal with a clear eye
      and to endure it with a fortitude to be proud of.

      Polk stayed several weeks at McDowell's to recover. So the Doctor
      could also help him to cope with the natural anxieties of
      reconvalescents and with the bewilderment about his somehow absurd
      situation in general. After the worst pain was over, the danger of
      fatal complications still threatened. It took some weeks full of
      suspense to be sure if and how he could survive. The patient had much
      time to muse and feel rotten. His basic human rights had been grossly
      violated, albeit with the intention to safeguard just those rights.
      His ego had been grossly offended by feelings of being powerless and
      and utterly dependent on the good will of other people and of their
      judgements, decisions and skills, although the outcome proved that
      those people were trustworthy and competent, and his confidence in
      them had not been misplaced. Anyway, his parents had found him worthy
      of making expenses for him and he could feel appreciated. He found
      himself far from them, though. All this had to be overcome.

      However, the operation was a success in many ways. The meagre boy had
      vanquished the most dreadful fears of life, and most probably in good
      style. Besides disgrace, there was not much left to scare him and he
      could begin to develop an astonishing self-confidence. There was
      still the problem of joyful gratitude prone to turn into a burdening
      feeling of being indebted. He would have to work on that.

      A matter-of-fact person has a very good chance to grasp the sense of
      such a dreadful cure, find solace in the facts, let bygones be
      bygones and make a glorious comeback to life. Jim Polk made a
      glorious comeback and when he became known to the world he was a
      rather matter-of-fact person, with good cognitive abilities and a
      fabulous memory but without much creativity or imagination - rigid,
      formal, temperate, quiet, tough, resolute, unselfish but egocentric,
      leaving mixed feelings in some beholders or no feeling at all in
      others, appealing only to serious people like himself.

      Had an acquired habit of suppressing pain, fear, grief, and emotional
      turmoil turned a boy with all the colourful dreams and ardent
      feelings of youth into a person that somehow resembled Mr. Spock?
      Then he was impaired by his illness and its cure. Had a strict
      education suppressed his dreams and feelings already before he fell
      ill? Then he was impaired by his upbringing but could stand the
      crisis well. Or had he been impaired since birth by certain
      congenital restrictions?

      Recently I read an article about different forms of autism in a revue
      at the dentist's and I regret that I did not think of asking for a
      copy. What I learned made me consider if Polk wasn't born with some
      mild form of autism. I was dumbfounded how easily some of Polk's
      characteristics suddenly explained. I dare not give a reasoning yet,
      because I could have got something wrong and must search for better
      information. I just wanted to share an idea that thrills me.

      We do not know if the doctor told his patient about the risk of
      infertility. Polk may have been inconcious of it until something
      dawned on him when he had oberved his marital duties faithfully for
      several years without a result. Many other versions of the story are
      possible. Having no children may have aroused his ambition to do
      something great by which further generations would remember him and
      it may even have become an obsession - or it may have caused him
      hardly any trouble.

      I wouldn't put it past James Knox that he was glad that there were no
      little intruders with whom he had to share the love of his wife
      Sarah. Seigenthaler quotes her on Page 26 with a remark about acting
      the beau. I do not know why he refers to anaphrodisia. I think that
      Sarah aimed at something else. To me "acting the beau" means no more
      than to dress carefully and to behave with marked courtesy. It amused
      me to imagine Polk as a specimen of a common domestic nuisance: A guy
      in comfortable, viz. abominable garments, uttering an affirmative
      grunt instead of saying "Yes, my sweetheart!"


      As for the second question, there are of course more answers but
      that's what came to my mind:

      First of all, Polk's self-confidence that had been greatly fortified
      by going bravely through a hell of pain gave him a firmness that
      often effected a success and he developed a predilection for bold
      gestures, like taking a strong stand or staring the bull in the eye.
      This predilection influenced many of his decisions. But one may bet
      that he calculated his risks very carefully.

      Polk's methods often show a certain resemblance to those of Dr.
      McDowell. Diligence, attention to details, careful planning and
      determined action were characteristics of both men. This may be a
      mere coincidence but Polk may have learned lessons from the man who
      had saved his life, though one cannot know if by experience or by

      Years later, when Polk was to solve the problems with Mexico he chose
      a solution which was as radical, forceful and painful as major
      surgery. Most probably he believed that it would be not more
      dangerous than his operation. We can neither prove nor deny that he
      was right. Without owing his life to the ordeal of a radical measure
      he might have decided for some other strategy. Acting upon his
      decision he worked hard to get things done quickly and properly.

      Unfortunately Polk had no great chance to prepare his country
      sufficiently by explaining what he was going to do and why, so as
      McDowell would have done. He was uncapable of explaining in short and
      for explanations in his own circuitous way he just had no time. Sadly
      I see no way how he could have done much better.

      Nevertheless I voted for "great" in your second poll.

      Thanks for the reader's patience and kind regards

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