- - Monday, October 23, 2017



By Robert W. Merry

Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 624 pages

Robert W. Merry, a highly respected reporter, writer, editor and publishing executive who has significantly improved each publication with which he’s been associated, is also a presidential historian of note, author among other works of the well-regarded “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent.”

As men and politicians, Presidents Polk (1845-1849) and McKinley (1897-1901) would seem to have had little in common — Polk, a small, plain, secretive and introspective man; and McKinley, an energetic, outgoing veteran of the Civil War who worked his way up through the ranks, from private to brevet major; then a law degree, and systematically up through the political system — Congress, governor of Ohio, and president.

But as Mr. Merry points out, in one term, President Polk fulfilled the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, completing the creation of one nation from coast to coast; and President McKinley, also in one term, oversaw the expansion of America from a continental to a full-blown global power. Under McKinley, writes Mr. Merry, “the country moved into a bold new era of economic growth and global stature.”

Among McKinley’s accomplishments: taking the country to the gold standard; the “annexation of Hawaii, destruction of the Spanish Empire and consolidation of America’s Caribbean sphere of influence; the rescue of Cuba, the push into the Pacific with the Philippines and Guam, the open door policy in China” — all carried out under the rubric of “the doctrine of noncolonial imperialism.”

Also, writes Mr. Merry, President McKinley was responsible for “the emergence of reciprocity as a trade policy synthesis (called ‘fair trade’ in later decades), growing momentum toward an isthmian canal, the forging of a ‘special relationship’ with Great Britain.”

Despite these considerable accomplishments, ushering in one of those rare periods in history when the nation underwent a sea change and a new age was launched, William McKinley, like James K. Polk, has never received the full credit he deserves for the pivotal role he played in our national history.

Part of the problem, ironically enough, was his amiability, his ability to bring people together, as Mr. Merry shows us, from his military combat service through Ohio politics to the White House. As Elihu Root, his highly regarded secretary of war and later Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of State put it, McKinley “always got his way, in part because he never cared who got the credit.”

But Theodore Roosevelt, brought on as vice president for McKinley’s second term, and with the assassination assuming the presidency just six month later, cared very deeply. And this, writes Mr. Merry, directly affected William McKinley’s perceived historical standing. Theodore Roosevelt’s “leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley

“Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. [Roosevelt] took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.”

Mr. Merry believes that several generations of Roosevelt biographers have mistaken style for accomplishment, and given him credit for actions or initiatives that were actually realized or planned by McKinley, as was the case with bringing the United States into the world or implementing a program of trust-busting.

“Thus did Mr. McKinley’s reputation fade through the decades as the Roosevelt story, heightened to accommodate the man’s sense of his own glory, dominated the country’s view of that historical period.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Merry, whose “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters” (2012), provides a badly needed and updated analysis of the system for ranking presidents, believes that we may be entering a new, mature period when people have finally had enough of loud bells and whistles and yearn for some quiet, old-fashioned competence.

If so, there may be no better model for political emulation than William McKinley.

As Robert Merry persuasively argues, President McKinley was “a man of prudence, character, compassion, competence, patriotism, and subtle force,” a man who deserves much better from the gods of history.

In this strongly written, deeply researched and evocative biography, Mr. Merry gives him his due.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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