In Denali switch, a reminder of who President McKinley was

Many Alaskans are celebrating the name change from Mount McKinley to Denali. But many Ohioans and Republicans complain that Obama’s move disrespects President McKinley, an Ohio native.

Becky Bohrer/AP/File
This file photo shows Mount McKinley in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. President Obama on Sunday said he's changing the name of the tallest mountain in North America from Mount McKinley to Denali.

Did President William McKinley deserve to have one of the greatest natural features of the United States named after him?

That question arises due to the controversy over President Obama’s decision to rebrand Alaska’s Mount McKinley as “Denali," the name native Americans originally bestowed upon the peak.

Many Alaskans are celebrating the name change. But many Ohioans and Republicans are not. They complain that Obama’s move is a capricious use of presidential power – and that it disrespects McKinley, an Ohio native and pioneering GOP chief executive who was assassinated at the start of his second term.

“It’s somewhat objectionable for its dismissal of a martyred President,” writes Ed Morrissey at the right-leaning Hot Air.

Yes, a gold prospector slapped the “McKinley” moniker on the mountain before William McKinley won the presidency in 1896. The move may have had as much to do with the prospector’s desire to promote the gold standard as with his backing of McKinley.

But over the century-plus of the Mount McKinley era, the name has stood as the primary – perhaps the only – national reminder of a confounding but important national leader. Historians have had a difficult time rating McKinley, in part because he’s been overshadowed by the president who came after him: Theodore Roosevelt.

To most Americans, McKinley is a forgotten name today. At his presidential library, the curator of his papers said he’s glad the Denali dispute has brought McKinley’s name back into the news.

He was a genuine war hero, the last president to have served in the Civil War. He started as a Union private, and ended a brevet major. A lawyer, he was an expert on and proponent of protective tariffs – then GOP orthodoxy, today not so much.

Elected Ohio’s governor, he then won the White House in 1896. He ushered in an era of Republican dominance and fast economic growth as America entered the 20th century. Historians remember him as one of the first United States politicians to organize the modern campaign system, in which political advisers round up money and support from corporations and other interested groups. In his day, opponents charged he was controlled by his famous friend and political adviser, Mark Hanna.

Today his reputation rests on his international interventions. McKinley was the first president to take the US to war with a major European power since James Madison presided over the War of 1812. This was the Spanish-American War, in which the US came to the aid of Cubans struggling to throw off Spanish rule. US naval power helped crush Spain in a short, 10-week campaign – leaving Washington in possession of some of Spain’s largest former colonies. At a stroke, the US had become a great world power – or an imperialist nation, depending on your point of view.

The Philippines was one of those new US possessions. Filipino nationalists rejected US rule, and McKinley ordered the insurrectionists put down in a bloody guerrilla war that would not end until 1902 and claimed the lives of 5,000 US soldiers and upwards of 200,000 Filipinos.

McKinley also intervened in Nicaragua and sent US troops to China to help European powers put down the Boxer Rebellion.

“McKinley’s difficult foreign policy decisions, especially his policy toward China and his decision to go to war with Spain over Cuban independence, helped the US enter the twentieth century as a new and powerful empire on the world stage,” according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

As the Miller Center also notes, McKinley in the past has been judged a mediocre president by historians.

When experts draw up their Top 10 President lists, McKinley’s pretty much guaranteed to be absent. He tends to lurk in the lower tiers of the second 10, at 19 or 20. Earlier this year, a Washington Post poll of American Political Science Association presidential experts put McKinley in 21st place, just behind William Howard Taft, and three spots up from Gerald Ford.

More recently, some writers have seen in McKinley an underrated gem. GOP consultant Karl Rove is in this group. The US political atmosphere of 1896 was similar to that of today’s, according to Rove, an architect of George W. Bush’s rise to the White House. It was marked by gridlock and rising economic fears, and changing demographics among the electorate.

In his forthcoming book, “The Triumph of William McKinley,” Rove argues that McKinley’s election overcame this stalemate and ushered in a Republican majority that dominated the US for decades.

Wonder if Rove will draw comparisons with any other, more recent GOP president? We’ll have to read it when it comes out in November to find out.

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