- - Sunday, December 27, 2015


By Karl Rove

Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 483 pages

At hand is a three-fer of a book: an account of the silver versus gold turmoil that gripped the United States near the turn of the 20th century; an incisive look at what veteran political strategist Karl Rove calls “the first modern presidential primary campaign,” and astute advice on how the modern Republican Party could benefit from the examples set by the 1896 William McKinley campaign.

Mr. Rove is perhaps the most skilled political strategist of his generation. As a Texas-based consultant, he ran more campaigns for more than 75 Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 24 states, climaxing with two wins for President George W. Bush. Renowned during his Washington days as a bookworm, in the best sense, Mr. Rove puts his accumulated knowledge of history to use to craft a superb political read.

McKinley’s heroism during the Civil War won him a battlefield promotion from the ranks to officer. Although ill-educated, he “read for the law” and practiced in Canton, Ohio. He won election to Congress, where he gained the nickname of the “Napoleon of Protection” for his support of tariffs aimed at shielding U.S. manufactures from foreign competition, and then as governor.

In Congress, McKinley was also prominent in opposing populist and mining interests who clamored for coining silver as an alternative to a currency based on gold. Advocates argued that such use of silver would increase the money supply and benefit lower-income persons such as farmers. McKinley and others argued against the “cheapening” of the currency by giving 52 cents of silver the same value as a dollar.

The issue was foremost in the 1896 election. But the first task for McKinley was to win a rough-and-tumble contest for the Republican nomination. Many historians portray McKinley as a “puppet” controlled by a wealthy Midwestern political operative named Mark Hanna. Mr. Rove, however, makes a convincing case that McKinley, was his own man (albeit much assisted by Hanna). And here Mr. Rove details a campaign template from which current candidates could benefit.

A key element of McKinley’s effort was inclusiveness. The nation still suffered from post-war divisions, and McKinley worked vigorously to heal the breaches. Although a fiscal conservative friendly to business, as governor McKinley was known as a friend of the working man.

As Mr. Rove writes, “The GOP could win national elections only if it gained support from new ethnic immigrant laborers in the North — often Catholic — while finding a way to defend free and fair elections below the Mason-Dixon Line and attract more votes there by emphasizing protection.”

Courting Catholics was a priority. He faced a noisy — and odious — group called the American Protective Association, which Mr. Rove describes as “a virulently anti-immigration and anti-Catholic group,” whose stated aim was to protect “the institutions of our government…from the direction and heavy hand of a foreign ecclesiastical potentate,” meaning the pope.

APA demanded that Gov. McKinley fire two Roman Catholic prison guards. The group threatened, correctly, that it had enough membership to threaten his re-election. McKinley opted for religious liberty over bigotry and rejected the demand.

In his quest for the nomination, McKinley refused to make promises of “patronage, power or cabinet posts” for delegates; as he put it, once a candidate starts making such promises, he cannot stop. And he eschewed the support of powerful “machine bosses” in such states as Pennsylvania and New York, which previously had such clout they were termed “the Combine.”

The path to nomination was rowdy, to an extreme; rival factions at the Texas Republican convention brandished pistols and knives. But McKinley, prevailed, and fought off several strong opponents to gain nomination at the national convention. (And here Mr. Rove treats readers to delightful political nonsense that rivals the richness of H.L. Mencken.)

To oppose McKinley, the Democrats fielded a 36-year-old Nebraskan named William Jennings Bryan, a free-silver advocate who galvanized his convention with his famed “Cross of Gold” speech which demonized silver opponents. Bryan’s speech also touched off anti-Semitic calls such as, “Down with the hook-nosed Shylocks of Wall Street.”

Bryan was famed chiefly as an orator, speaking hundreds of times a year, commanding as much as $200 per appearance (some $5,000 in current dollars). McKinley wisely chose not to challenge Bryan on the stump, choosing to wage a front porch campaign from his home. He remarked, “I must just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking with Bryan.”

With crossing rail lines servicing Canton, McKinley drew enormous crowds — an estimated 750,000, about one of every 20 in the nation, an operation of “industrial scale.” Dozens of groups daily followed a band to the McKinley home to hear the candidate and shout their support. His campaign cranked out some 250 million pieces of literature, 18 per voter. And McKinley prevailed, marking the beginning of four decades of GOP dominance.

Mr. Rove offers several adages from campaign. Winning a convert from the opposition is worth two votes: one gained, one lost by the other side. “A counter-punch is often more powerful than the punch.” Voters choose the issue, not the candidate. And he termed the the winning coalition “a frothy, diverse coalition of owners and workers, longtime Americans and new citizens, lifetime Republicans and fresh converts drawn together by common beliefs and allegiances.”

What more could a campaign wish?

Former political reporter Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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