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william mckinley

2 october 2008

When I was young – ten years old or so, about 1970 – I owned a small plaster bust of William McKinley. Salvaged from the domestic relics of some great-aunt or other, the thing was a real curiosity in an age when most kids my age were into posters of the Beatles or baseball cards of Hank Aaron. I no longer have the bust, but somewhere I still have a tiny statuette of McKinley, one of a series of netsuke-like Presidential figurines collected at some long-defunct Chicago supermarket chain of the 1960s, "Hand-Painted by Artists." It displays McKinley as a corpulent, mildly scowling, clean-shaven gent in an impossibly voluminous overcoat, propping a top hat against his thigh. The close shave marks him as the first President of the 20th century, but everything else about the little McKinley bespeaks Gilded-Age self-satisfaction. I have no idea whether the real McKinley tended to embonpoint, but he falls right in the middle of a range of seriously hefty Presidents, from Arthur to Taft, who literally embody the extravagance of an America grown to preponderance on the world stage.

Kevin Phillips's William McKinley, in the Times Books American Presidents series, sees McKinley as a great President, leading the nation not only over the symbolic turn of the 20th century but into international empire and a vast economic transition from agriculture to manufacturing. Though he was a conservative Republican, McKinley was surprisingly popular with labor. The worker and the capitalist of the 1890s fought like cats in a sack, but their political interests were ultimately more aligned with each other's than either's were with those of the farmers who constituted Democrat William Jennings Bryan's electoral base.

Phillips also presents McKinley as a reluctant imperialist. He wants to have McKinley both ways in that respect: as someone who tried to calm war hysteria in the 1897-98 escalation of tensions over Cuba, but also as someone who installed the first "war room" in the White House and acted as his own chief diplomat and supreme commander during the brief war with Spain. Phillips is concerned with making a case for McKinley as an independent man of action, and he succeeds, somewhat at the cost of his view of McKinley as a dulcet man of peace. A veteran of Civil War staff-officer duties, McKinley could run a tight military operation, even if he lacked the flamboyance of his Rough Rider successor.

Much of Phillips's argument is repetitive, as he misses no chance to make a case for McKinley's greatness, but is confronted at all turns by a received tradition in American history that sees McKinley as a doughy, slow-of-speech type, a kind of glorified alderman in the pocket of plutocratic interests from Philistine small-city Ohio. So he reads McKinley's inarticulateness as evidence of good listening, his indecisions as evidence of deliberation, and his lack of intellectual interests as . . . well, lack of intellectual interests. But McKinley was elected twice, and dominated national Republican politics in a way that his more intellectually curious predecessors, like Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield, failed to do. "Then as now, voters warm to an honest and effective public servant who'd rather live on middle-class Main Street . . . than discuss Tolstoy in fashionable salons" (19).

Phillips sees McKinley as having a lot in common with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, right-wingers who drew considerable support from labor because they seemed to share the values of blue-collar America, even if they didn't share the working class's policy interests. He has a good point here. The popularity of some far-right politicians among the natural base of the left says a lot about the peculiar structure of class divisions in America, and the way in which political rhetoric articulates values to those classes.

Phillips says almost nothing about Leon Czolgosz in this study, not that Czolgosz played any role in McKinley's life before ending it. But Czolgosz has loomed large in McKinley historiography. One assumes that if you get assassinated by a working-class anarchist, you must be a tool of the bourgeoisie. But real-life politics are more complicated than that either/or scenario. And real assassins are more complicated. Lincoln, shot by a white supremacist, was obviously a friend to African-Americans. But Garfield is assumed to have been a civil-service reformer because he was famously shot by a disappointed office-seeker, when in fact that office-seeker was nothing more than a nutcase. We just can't assume that assassins cancel their opposites. McKinley was more complex than that simple equation would suggest. And Kevin Phillips, if not always convincing in arguing for McKinley's virtues, is powerful in asserting the 25th President's complexity.

Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York: Times Books, 2003.