William McKinley by Kevin Phillips
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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most I admit knowing about President McKinley before reading Kevin Phillips’
new book, William
McKinley, is that he was shot in
The combination of the "Democratic
Depression" of 1893 and severe ethno-cultural hostilities between new
immigrant workers and old-stock agrarians created an urban revulsion against
the Democrats which lasted into the late 1920s. . . . The essentially
nostalgic and colonial character of the [
Walter Dean Bumham, The American Party Systems
The implication to be drawn from Professor
Burnham, an expert on American political realignment, is that electoral
upheaval explains more of William McKinley's extraordinary domestic policy
success than any tabulation of mere legislative enactment. Through shrewd
politicking at a critical juncture, McKinley ensured that the economy and
society of the early-twentieth-century
Of the six or seven national party realignments
True, the gold standard and high tariffs, wearing out their welcome, would both need to be replaced at the end of the industrial Republican cycle in 1932, which is another story (and another realignment). But it must be pointed out that McKinley, the currency straddle bug and trade reciprocity advocate, was more flexible on both issues than the business-establishment Republican presidents to follow in the 1920s. His second term, of which he served only six months, would have basked in a brightening ideological sun, encouraging his Lincolnian streak on subjects ranging from tax fairness to attempts to reduce trusts and monopolies, especially those nurtured by special-interest tariff provisions.
Alas, because the Ohioan's modus operandi was to keep his own counsel, write down very little, and let others think that they were doing much of the steering, he did not leave the sort of paper trail usually required to pique the interest of intellectuals. Unrecorded presidential conversations with admiring reformers and progressives were just that: unrecorded. In historical terms he could not have imagined, the bullets that eliminated his second-term tenure from September 1901 through March 1905 contributed to his great reputational loss and Theodore Roosevelt's gain. The Progressive era is said to begin with TR, when in fact McKinley put in place the political organization, the antimachine spirit, the critical party realignment, the cadre of skilled GOP statesmen who spanned a quarter of a century, the expert inquiries, the firm commitment to popular and economic democracy, and the leadership needed from 1896 through 1901 when TR was still maturing.
McKinley, fifteen years older than the man he took as vice president in 1900, was a man who achieved much, portions of it far-reaching, by avoiding the limelight and building a reputation, popularity, and gravitas that ultimately allowed him to face down the Senate hierarchs and Eastern machine leaders and win the 1896 Republican presidential nomination virtually unencumbered. TR could never have done that; even in the years 1897-98, when, almost forty years old and assistant secretary of the navy, he appeared to many who dealt with him as headstrong and immature.
His later progressivism was still half-submerged
in an upper-class derogation of labor unions and routine insistence on a gold
Beyond amplifying the domestic successes interwoven with McKinley's realignment of party politics, this chapter also reinterprets the respective roles of McKinley and Roosevelt in bringing progressivism and reform to a head in the new century. The two administrations must be taken together, with McKinley being the essential foundation builder and the former Rough Rider the greater attention getter and crusader.
McKinley is a solid addition to the popular American Presidents series,
and thanks to Kevin Phillips, the place of McKinley in the ranks of
Steve Hopkins, January 22, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2004 issue of Executive Times
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