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Giving reformer McKinley his due

William McKinley; The American Presidents;Kevin Phillips Times Books: 228 pp., $20

October 03, 2003|Anthony Day | Special to The Times

In this provocative and imaginative biography, Kevin Phillips attempts to rescue President William McKinley from the dull unimportance to which several generations of American historians have consigned him.

From the time of his assassination in 1901, McKinley was called uninspired, a mere tool of Eastern big businessmen, a puppet whose strings were pulled by fellow Ohioan and Republican boss Mark Hanna.

One large part of the judgment of history on the 25th president was the dynamic character of the charismatic vice president who succeeded him, Theodore Roosevelt.

Another part was the nature of the man himself. Though apparently much admired -- McKinley overwhelmingly won a second term in 1900 -- he did not strike sparks. He coined no memorable phrases. He rarely wrote down his thoughts or his reasons for action. He was content to let others take credit for his accomplishments. His face was a mask that enabled cartoonist Homer Davenport to caricature him notably as an overdressed, impotent, manipulated Buddha.

Phillips boldly sketches another McKinley. With a deep knowledge of U.S. history and electoral trends, he has illuminated previously overlooked aspects of American politics.

He first came to public attention with his analysis of Richard Nixon's victorious "Southern strategy" of appealing to both Southern whites and Northern blue-collars in his 1968 presidential campaign.

As a regular contributor to The Times and other publications, and author of numerous books, he has come to look with a sardonic eye on the influence of money and power on American life. His sympathies lie with the great American middle-class.

That is where Phillips squarely puts McKinley. The president, he writes, not only brought about a decisive shift in electoral politics but laid the groundwork for the progressive era that followed. McKinley, in Phillips' view, was able to unite the aspirations of new immigrants with those of earlier Americans. He was sympathetic to labor, to women and to African Americans. A devout Methodist and loving husband to his ailing wife, McKinley espoused national unity, inclusive politics and ecumenism, especially toward the growing number of Catholics in Ohio and elsewhere. His skeptical attitudes toward business combinations laid the groundwork for Theodore Roosevelt's trust-busting efforts.

McKinley's protectionism was attacked for causing economic disruption. But Phillips says that some kind of protectionism was common for industrial democracies at the time and that McKinley laid great stress on tariff reciprocity, by which nations agreed to reduce import taxes mutually in an effort to stimulate trade.

Of the great gold versus silver debate that convulsed the nation in the latter part of the 19th century, Phillips concludes, as do other historians, that the fire went out of the argument when McKinley adopted the gold standard in 1900. The nation prospered with tariffs and on gold.

Earlier historians, influenced by the progressive movement and reflecting the debate at the time, saw McKinley's acquiescence in the war against Spain as a surrender to imperialism.

Phillips contends that McKinley was both instrumental in the diplomacy and naval buildup that led to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii and that he would have preferred to end the dispute with Spain diplomatically. That was not to be.

Public opinion was inflamed by newspapers and others after the explosion that sank the battleship Maine in Havana's harbor in 1898.

And Phillips suggests that strong war advocates surrounding him, including Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay, forced his hand. He may, however, be downplaying somewhat McKinley's religious conviction -- that he had a duty to help those oppressed by the Spaniards -- as a factor in his decision to go to war.

The book, one in a series of short presidential biographies edited by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., inevitably tackles the presidential rating scores. Phillips says that the former governor of Ohio should not be dismissed as he has been, but should be ranked for his political and policy achievements along with Theodore Roosevelt as among the "near-great" chief executives.

Because this thesis rests in large part on what McKinley might have done had he lived through his second term, much is speculative. But not all. Phillips makes a strong case that in our national memory we have slighted the lawyer from Canton, Ohio.

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