William McKinley: As a president, did he move mountains?

Historian Scott Miller talks about the legacy of William McKinley, the 25th US president and, suddenly, a newsworthy figure.

Historians are being nicer to McKinley these days, restoring some luster to the reputation of a man who was, in his time, 'the most beloved president since Lincoln.'

It’s hard to go very far in the United States without coming across the name of a president. I live on Monroe Avenue, just a few blocks from Adams Elementary School. A trip last month took me to airports named after JFK and Ronald Reagan and a city with Washington in its name.

But now, the number of places officially named after presidents has shrunk by one: William McKinley has been laid low by the tallest mountain in North America.

Alaskans love President Obama’s decision to replace “Mt. McKinley” with “Denali,” the mountain’s original name. Ohioans, including members of Congress, are steamed about what they see as a diss of one of the eight presidents they claim as their own.

Amid all the controversy (and chuckling about the controversy from non-partisans), the 25th president is having a moment as the 114th anniversary of his assassination approaches this month.

Actually, he’s been having a moment for a while. Historians are being nicer to McKinley these days, restoring some luster to the reputation of a man who was, in his time, “the most beloved president since Lincoln.”

Those are the words of Seattle historian Scott Miller, author of 2011’s well-received book The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century.

In an interview, Miller recalls McKinley’s role in America’s journey toward world dominance, the reasons why history forgot about him, and his basic niceness. “What struck me about him is that he seemed to be just a really good guy,” Miller says. “The sort you might look to spend the day fishing with or take to a ball game.”
 Q: Why have we mostly forgotten about McKinley, a wartime president and influential chief executive?
 McKinley suffered from several handicaps when it came to winning a bigger place in the history books.

For starters, he wasn’t especially good at spinning memorable phrases and didn’t write much down. Assassinated so early in his second term, he also didn’t get a chance to write a memoir that might have interested historians.

His wife Ida took his death very hard and didn’t attempt any written record of their life, and his children both died when they were young. Finally, there is the figure of the person who followed him in the White House – Theodore Roosevelt. One of the most beloved presidents in American history, TR cast a long shadow over that period and tends to obscure McKinley.
 Q: What surprised you about McKinley?
 What struck me about him is that he seemed to be just a really good guy. The sort you might look to spend the day fishing with, or take to a ball game. He was very personable, had a real talent for remembering names, and enjoyed telling jokes. (At least clean ones.  He was very religious.)

Unlike a lot of politicians we know today, his friendliness seemed to be genuine. He just liked people. In working on my book, I developed a genuine fondness for him.
 Q: What did you learn about his era?
 The period around the turn of the century would have been a fascinating time to be an American. The country was just starting to emerge as a global power, and there was tremendous excitement and innocence about the future.

Having said that, it was not a good time to be poor. There were virtually no social safety nets as we know them today and few unions.  Many unskilled laborers and especially newly arrived immigrants led painfully difficult lives.

Q: From a 21st century perspective, what do you think were his greatest successes and his greatest failures?

McKinley was elected thinking his main job would be to get the economy moving. Instead, he was quickly confronted with a number of problems abroad.

Like a number of presidents who would follow him, he allowed himself to be sucked into wars that he really wanted no part of. In the Philippines, which the US acquired from Spain as part of the peace treaty that ended the Spanish-American War in 1898, we inherited all kinds of problems. Nobody seemed to have appreciated that the Filipinos, who had fought the Spanish, would feel any better about being ruled by the United States.

Fighting soon started and quickly got out of hand. Terrible atrocities were committed by both sides, and the US was put in the awkward role of colonial master. McKinley never said so, but he must have been horrified at the war he got into there.
 Q: You write about McKinley and empire. How did he change America’s relationship with the world?
In 1898, the US easily defeated Spain and took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Though Spain at that point was actually pretty weak, the ease with which the US defeated the Spanish fleet in the Atlantic and the Pacific served notice to Europe that the US had arrived as a nation to be reckoned with.

Q: What did the American people think of him?

There was, of course, a segment of the population that disliked him. A Republican, he was an easy target for those who felt that big business had achieved too much power. It was one such man, an anarchist, who shot him.

Yet McKinley was the most beloved president since Lincoln. The economy had recovered from one of the worst downturns in its history before he was first elected. On top of that were America’s overseas victories, which many Americans were immensely were proud of.
 Q: What is his biggest legacy?
 In my view, his greatest legacy is the overseas possessions that the US acquired during his presidency. We occupied Cuba for some time after his death, and the Philippines was a virtual American colony for decades. We still have two islands that we acquired from that era, Puerto Rico and Guam.
 Q: What might his legacy have been if he had he lived?
 What is most intriguing to me is how he would have handled the power of big business.  Before he was shot, there were signs that, as Teddy Roosevelt did, he was ready to take on trusts and monopolies and try to loosen their grip on the economy.

Would he have really had the backbone to do so? I have my doubts.

Q: Where would you rank him among presidents?
 He certainly was not one of the greats, like Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, who both guided the country through perilous times. McKinley was never a charismatic leader in the sense that Americans like to see. He was a consensus builder and quiet about his accomplishments.

But McKinley’s presidency came at a turning point in American history. For that reason, his role is significant.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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