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Giving William McKinley his due

By Bob D'Angelo


I love books about American presidents.

I own 50 biographies about 28 different presidents. I am, however, missing books about that block of presidents that include Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan — although I do have a pamphlet somewhere about Buchanan.

When I was 7 years old, I was able to recite every president. My great-uncle wanted me to appear on Jeopardy! although it probably didn’t dawn on him that the show had other categories besides presidents.

I don’t have any books about Warren G. Harding either, but he and Buchanan now have dynamite, witty Twitter accounts.

When ranking the presidents, William McKinley tends to get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps that is because he has been overshadowed by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in September 1901, never had the chance to complete what he started after his re-election to a second term in 1900.

As it turns out, McKinley achieved a great deal. And the 25th president did it with slow, measured and calculating moves.

McKinley comes to life in Robert Merry’s thorough and richly detailed biography, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (2017; Simon & Schuster; hardback; $35; 611 pages). Merry, 74, a journalist who spent nearly 40 years in Washington as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a publisher for the Congressional Quarterly, lifts McKinley from the haze of mediocre presidents from the last part of the 19th century and points out how he was truly the architect of the American Century.”

“McKinley today languishes at a middling level” in rating presidents, Merry writes. But President McKinley dispels that perception.

McKinley is not the first president whose reputation was rebuilt by Merry. The author’s 2009 work, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, put the 11th president’s achievements into a proper perspective, showing how effective the stern, sober Tennessean actually was during his four-year term.

McKinley did not have the ebullience of Roosevelt and certainly did not smother a room with his presence, as TR did. Flamboyance was not a McKinley trait.

Getting what he wanted, though, was another matter. The Ohio-born Civil War veteran, who enjoyed his nickname “Major,” was a canny manipulator who knew how to pull the levers of power. Think of the Lyndon Johnson “treatment,” but achieved more subtly. Both men knew how to push their programs and get them enacted.

“Behind his famous magnanimity and bonhomie lurked a resolve to get what he wanted,” Merry writes. Adversaries believed McKinley was “a leaf in the wind, blown hither and thither by random gusts of political sentiment.”

That was a mistake. While McKinley may have called himself a simple country boy, he was silently effective. His low-key, cordial demeanor “masked a calculating political operative.” People also gravitated to McKinley, finding him a trustworthy soul: “His short, bulky frame cut an imposing figure,” Merry writes, and he had “a broad, handsome face featuring candescent gray eyes” and a “deep, resonating voice.”

He also had a natural talent for caution, thinking through a problem before acting.

Those skills were honed during his days as a prosecuting attorney in Stark County, Ohio. He was “manly, but never rash.”

McKinley was a battle-tested Civil War veteran who earned his stripes during the Civil War, excelling at the Battle of Antietam by fearlessly ferrying supplies to needy Union troops.

“Call me Major,” McKinley said after his election as president. “I earned that. I’m not so sure of the rest.”

I found it surprising that McKinley’s mentor, during war and his political career, was future president Rutherford B. Hayes.

It was Hayes who provided McKinley with political advice he took to heart after being elected to Congress. “You must not make a speech on every motion offered or every bill introduced. You must confine yourself to one thing in particular,” Hayes told him. “Become a specialist.”

McKinley concentrated on the tariff. Later, he would be elected to the presidency based on his stand on the gold standard (he embraced it). During his first term, the United States annexed Hawaii, defeated Spain to consolidate its power in the Caribbean and gained a strong foothold in the western Pacific theater, including the Philippines and Guam. McKinley also encouraged an open-door policy in China, while cementing a strong relationship with the United Kingdom.

He also took steps toward constructing a canal in Central America that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Roosevelt would achieve that goal, but McKinley laid the groundwork.

President William McKinley in 1898. Library of Congress photo.

Merry, in his research, also dispels the idea that McKinley was manipulated by Mark Hanna, an Ohio businessman who relished his role as a political fixer. Hanna certainly had influence but McKinley did not dance to strings allegedly pulled by the ambitious Ohioan. When Hanna strongly opposed naming Roosevelt to the ticket in 1900, he was overruled by McKinley, who issued a statement telling “close friends” — that meant Hanna — to back off.

Merry writes in-depth about McKinley’s devotion to his wife, Ida Saxton McKinley, who suffered a spine injury and had epileptic seizures throughout her adult life. The couple lost their two children at young ages, too.

McKinley “never let up on his solicitousness toward his troubled wife and never showed impatience or frustration,” Merry writes.

When McKinley was apart from his wife, the president would shower her “with expressions of love,” writing several letters a day. When he traveled by train, McKinley would send telegrams.

But even though he was devoted to his wife, McKinley never wavered in his political ambitions, Merry writes.

While McKinley certainly had plans for his second term, the American public would never experience them. On Sept. 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and died eight days later.

That opened the door for Roosevelt, who inserted his strong personality into the presidency. However, Merry successfully argues that “momentous events” occurred during McKinley’s terms and that the country “moved into a bold new era of economic growth and global stature.”

Merry asserts that few presidents have guided the United States through “so many pivotal developments in so many civic areas.”

He is correct. Merry describes McKinley as a man of “prudence, character, compassion, competence, patriotism and subtle force” who will remain a confusing figure in American history. Historians will continue to debate McKinley’s true contributions to the American Century, but Merry presents a compelling case in his favor.

Robert Merry puts out a refreshing view of President William McKinley.


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