An engaging life of the stoical Buckeye politician, whom Phillips (Wealth and Democracy, 2002, etc.) reckons to be “an upright and effective president of the solid second rank.”
Faint praise, perhaps. But considering other second-rank presidents from the middle class (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton), and even considering some of the first tier, William McKinley looks better and better as the years roll on. As Phillips—an eminent political historian and biographer, and one of the best in the business—points out, McKinley was a “hinge president,” whose first term ushered in the 20th century, who “presided over the fruition of the Northern or Yankee version of U.S. expansionism, a commercial manifest destiny tied to increasing American exports.” Which sounds rather like the current rush to globalism, and, as Phillips observes, latter GOP operative Karl Rove has lately taken to pointing to McKinley’s “realignment” of the Republican Party toward progressivism and free trade as a model for his modern counterparts—while, as Phillips also adds, carefully ignoring the fact that McKinley believed in laying tax burdens squarely on the rich, embraced organized labor, used American military force (against Spain, in his time) only reluctantly, and rejected “the national party influence and patronage demands of the Eastern state GOP machine leaders.” Phillips, who clearly and understandably admires McKinley, charts his rise from a staff officer during the Civil War (during which his habits of careful study and preparation served his senior officers well) to local-level politician to well-liked national figure—and finally to martyr, McKinley having been assassinated in 1901 by what his official biography deems “a deranged anarchist.” In all his roles, Phillips observes, McKinley labored earnestly to achieve consensus, arriving at a moderate platform that his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, carried on, and so effectively that Phillips views the two presidencies as a single continuum.
An instructive, graceful look at a neglected presidency.