A Misnamed Mountain, a Misunderstood President

Pr1024x1024esident Obama’s decision to rename Mount McKinley in Alaska by its Native American name Denali has caused a predictable flap. Ohio politicians, always concerned to safeguard William McKinley’s standing, have been especially outraged that the highest peak in North America, so long named after a president from their state, now will go by the name that most Alaskans use when they refer to the mountain. Ohio claims many presidents, but few of distinction. What is less often acknowledged is that the name Mount McKinley first was attached to the mountain in 1896 when a prospector and a Republican named William Dickey emerged from the wilderness to learn that the Republican National Convention had just nominated William McKinley for president on a platform that endorsed the gold standard for the nation’s currency. Following McKinley’s selection, the Democrats selected William Jennings Bryan as their candidate, pledged to inflate the currency by the free coinage of silver into money. What people at the time called “the Battle of the Standards” was on and McKinley and the GOP won. The name for the mountain stuck.

Mount McKinley was not officially designated while its namesake was president. Nor was it so labeled by the government, after McKinley was shot and later died in September 1901, as a memorial to the martyred chief executive. Sixteen years later, when Woodrow Wilson was president, the Mount McKinley National Park was established. By then McKinley’s historical reputation was in eclipse after the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. From contemporary news accounts in 1917, the name Mount McKinley was taken as a given, and Native American sensibilities were not considered in that racist era. Memorializing the fallen president was not a consideration. The major element in creating the national park in 1917 was to protect endangered native wildlife at the behest of hunting advocates in the conservationist Boone and Crockett Club, not to honor McKinley.

This minor episode comes at a time when McKinley’s historical reputation, long in the shadows, is showing overdue signs of a revival. Karl Rove, a former student, will publish an account of the 1896 election this fall. Thirty-five years ago I dubbed McKinley the “first Modern president.” I contended that in his use of presidential commissions, relations with the press, exercise of the war power, and relations with Congress, McKinley did everything for which later chief executives have received credit and usually did it better. As his secretary of war, Elihu Root, put it: “He was a man of great power because he was absolutely indifferent to credit. His great desire was ‘to get it done.’ He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”

Compared with the more flamboyant Roosevelt, McKinley seemed cautious, understated, and a little dull. He never pounded his chest or proclaimed his own greatness. His personal secretary, George B. Cortelyou, gave regular briefings to the press and saw to the needs of the reporters who covered the president. McKinley gave no public interviews and could not be quoted directly. He was a master of the timely leak about his intentions.

By the time his second term began in 1901 there were complaints that too much power had accrued to the White House. One reporter said: “the power originally vested in the executive alone has increased to an extent of which the framers of the Constitution had no prophetic vision.” McKinley was shot and died in September 1901, a celebrity president took over, and the innovative administration faded into history. That would not have surprised the modest, unassuming McKinley. As he told Cortelyou in 1899, “That’s all a man can hope for during his lifetime–to set an example-and when he is dead, to be an inspiration to history.” National shame over the war with Spain in 1898 and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection eroded McKinley’s historical importance among presidents.

Mount McKinley was never a memorial to a slain president. The name had partisan roots before McKinley ever gained the White House. Subsequent use of the title was detached from the substance of McKinley’s career. Ohio politicians should be content with the revived reputation of their native son. He is more than getting his due from the historical profession as his rise in esteem attests. While we can never know what McKinley himself would have thought about Mount McKinley reverting to Denali, a likely assumption is that he would view the change with the same balanced perspective that he brought to the art of presidential leadership.

-Written by Lewis L. Gould, Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Monmouth College and author of “The Presidency of William McKinley” and “The Spanish-American War and President McKinley.”  Mr. Gould has recently been interviewed by The Washington Post.

Bull Moose or Bull Mouse: TR, Donald Trump, and a Third Party

9780700616060Donald Trump has recently mused about the possibility of a third party candidacy should the Republicans select someone other than him as their presidential nominee. Trump, who leaves few thoughts unexpressed, will thus stir memories of another Republican who, failing to get the GOP nomination, launched his own political party to win the White House. In 1912, defeated at the Republican National Convention by the forces of President William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt took his delegates out of the convention and nominated himself on the ticket of the new Progressive Party. In terms that would suit the most fervent of today’s evangelical Republicans, Roosevelt proclaimed that “we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”

Roosevelt made a strong race against the Democratic nominee, carrying six states with 88 electoral votes. He got about 27% of the popular vote and was an overall second behind Woodrow Wilson’s 41 %.  But he did lose. Popularity and charisma took Roosevelt only so far. Like other third party hopefuls from Robert M. La Follette in 1924, George Wallace in 1968, and Ross Perot in 1992, the partisan allegiances of the general electorate in the end frustrated third-party runs.

The similarities and differences between Trump and TR are interesting. Roosevelt in 1912 did not hint at a third party run until a month before the GOP convention. Here is Trump a year out dropping public warnings to the party that he might use his wealth to underwrite a third party run. Yet cursing the party establishment did not work for Roosevelt in 1912. Although his ill-treatment at the convention, and allegations of stolen delegates, initially justified his defection, he soon abandoned that strategy in favor of a reform program based on his “New Nationalism” of expanded government power.

It seems unlikely that Trump, who rarely goes near substance, would emulate Roosevelt’s, effort to lay out a blueprint for an America with greater corporate regulation, enhanced social justice for poorer elements in society, and a larger role for the federal government. Whatever one concludes about Roosevelt in 1912, there was a serious mind at work engaging the contemporary concerns of his time.  It is hard to imagine Roosevelt giving out the personal information of his opponents or attacking the war records of prominent senators. When friends brought him alleged evidence of Woodrow Wilson’s marital indiscretions, TR rejected it out of hand and would not use it, even though he disliked Wilson intensely.

When Roosevelt came to the Republican convention in Chicago, reporters asked him about how he felt. He said he felt as fit as  a “Bull Moose,” and that mighty animal became the symbol of Roosevelt’s third party.  There was an element of a sore loser in Roosevelt’s decision to leave his political home, but he redeemed himself, at least in the eyes of history, by the intellectual content of his campaign. Much of the liberal agenda of the 20th century emerged out of Roosevelt’s third party campaign and came to fruition in the New Deal and Great Society,

Donald Trump seems very adept at articulating popular grievances on immigration and foreign policy in language that, though often coarse and indelicate, resonates with the Republican base.  His preemptive assertion that he might take his marbles, his helicopters, and his audience appeal and run alone should the GOP delegates reject him is characteristic of someone with an ample ego and a large fortune. As Theodore Roosevelt learned, however, there is more to politics and running for president than one-liners and insults.  It is one thing to rattle the Republican National Committee with a third-party threat.  It is quite another to do the hard work of building up a genuine third party in all fifty states and make it a real political option.  Trump may be a master of the art of the deal, but at least on his record so far, there is little evidence of the capacity to do retail politics with any realistic prospect of success against Republicans and Democrats in a national election. One of TR’s successors, Warren G. Harding, spoke of the joys of vague rhetoric in political matters. Harding called it “bloviating.”  Trump is a serial bloviator. When it comes to a potential third party, Donald Trump is more likely to be remembered for his temporary celebrity than as an heir of one of the great politicians in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, and his memorable third-party run in 1912.

-Written by Lewis L. Gould, Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Monmouth College and author of “Bull Moose on the Stump: The 1912 Campaign Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt” and “Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics“.

The Betwixt Years of William Howard Taft

9780700620012In a recent New York Times article on what makes a great ex-president, Professor Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University features William Howard Taft and his work as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For the full story of Taft’s years as an ex-president that led to the Court read Chief Executive to Chief Justice: Taft betwixt the White House and Supreme Court by Lewis L. Gould.