Review: The ‘President McKinley’ Mystery
The 25th president was the first modern Republican. But was he an agent of change or merely its beneficiary?

By Richard Norton Smith

November 3, 2017

To most Americans William McKinley Jr. (1843-1901) is a colorless cipher, a name without a face. We remember the Maine, but not the man who oversaw the Spanish-American War. No conspiracy theories attach themselves to his assassination. Modern visitors to his hometown of Canton, Ohio, are more likely destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame than the Napoleonic mausoleum built as a shrine to our 25th president. Trailing the parade of (mostly) bearded seat warmers who occupied the White House between the heroic Lincoln and the swashbuckling Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley is seen as the Un-Roosevelt, a frock-coated conciliator with more to say to the 19th century than the 21st.

Robert Merry is not “most Americans.” A veteran Washington journalist, deeply knowledgeable of the political character, Mr. Merry contends that our last old-fashioned president was also our first truly modern one. Having authored a 2009 biography of the unjustly neglected James K. Polk, Mr. Merry is accustomed to questioning historical convention. Polk, the 11th chief executive, made history by achieving in a single term all of his announced objectives—tariff and banking reform, peaceful settlement of the Oregon territorial dispute with Great Britain, and the forced acquisition of Texas, California and huge swaths of the American West. McKinley, by contrast, anticipates the reactive president of more recent times, judged less by inaugural-day visions than his response to unforeseen events at home and abroad.

‘Call me Major. I earned that,’ McKinley would demur. ‘I am not so sure of the rest.’

From boyhood McKinley showed an instinct for leadership. Not yet 20, his bravery at Antietam attracted the patronage of his commanding officer, future president Rutherford B. Hayes, who would prove a helpful guide through the cutthroat school of Ohio politics. Grounded in his Methodist faith, McKinley retained a sweet-tempered equanimity unimpaired by early success, first as a lawyer and then as a perennially popular congressman. (“Call me Major. I earned that,” he told strangers with typical modesty. “I am not so sure of the rest.”) His 1871 marriage to Ida Saxton, the spirited daughter of a Canton banker, formalized a lifelong love affair whose ardor survived the early deaths of two children and the onset of chronic, if mysterious, illnesses that reduced Ida to clinging, sometimes querulous invalidism. The afternoon sun gave her headaches. She found the color yellow unsettling. Because his emotionally fragile wife hated to lose at cards, McKinley took it upon himself to caution newcomers to the game, “Mrs. McKinley always wins.”

In time Ida was diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition widely, inaccurately associated with mental impairment. McKinley’s efforts to conceal her vulnerability reinforced a furtive streak in his character. In Congress his name became synonymous with high tariffs—the highest in American history. Gerrymandered out of his seat in 1890, he returned to office a year later as governor of Ohio. When an unscrupulous friend defaulted on $130,000 in loans to which a trusting McKinley had affixed his signature, the governor faced financial and political ruin. In a twist worthy of a Frank Capra movie, 5,000 citizens sent McKinley unsolicited contributions to supplement larger gifts from such Gilded Age worthies as George Pullman and Henry Clay Frick. McKinley returned all the donations from sympathetic strangers. He also insisted on deducting something from every paycheck for the rest of his life and handing it over to his trustees.

More facile rivals underestimated McKinley, usually to their regret. Confronting a phalanx of machine politicians hoping to deny him the Republican presidential nomination in 1896, the supposed innocent conceived the perfect slogan to frame his candidacy: “The Bosses Against the People.” His fall campaign, brilliantly stage managed by Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna, changed the way Americans elect our presidents. With a war chest extracted from corporate interests terrified of McKinley’s populist opponent, former Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan, Hanna & Co. distributed 100 million pieces of literature, targeting diverse voting blocs as precisely as today’s Cambridge Analytica or Russian trolls. Yet even as he applied modern business practices to the campaign, McKinley tapped into small-town nostalgia through a carefully orchestrated front-porch campaign in Canton. Before Election Day some 750,000 of his countrymen trooped to the McKinley front lawn for a highly effective dose of image making.

His election that fall realigned American politics, ushering in a period of Republican dominance lasting until FDR’s Depression-era triumph in 1932. “The advance agent of prosperity” lived up to his name, though Mr. Merry leaves room for doubt as to how much the new president’s protectionist policies actually contributed to ending the nation’s worst economic depression to date. (Discoveries of gold in Alaska, Australia and elsewhere undoubtedly helped.) To the old Hamiltonian reliance on government as the handmaiden of capitalist enterprise McKinley added a fervent commitment to sound currency and the first tentative steps toward freer, fairer trade.

Not for nothing did crusty House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon claim that McKinley, a thoroughly professional politician, kept his ear so close to the ground it was full of grasshoppers. He didn’t just listen; he learned. Outgrowing his economic nationalism, by the end of his life McKinley was declaring “Isolation is no longer possible or desirable.” The transformative leader was himself transformed. Far from being Hanna’s tool, as he is often portrayed, the McKinley described by Mr. Merry is an independent agent, unafraid to denounce mushrooming business trusts that confused monopoly with efficiency. A gifted storyteller, Mr. Merry breathes life into distant controversies. Peering behind his subject’s masks, he locates the driving ambition and calculating shrewdness of a chief executive who combined the inscrutability of Coolidge, the optimism of Reagan (“A patriot makes a better citizen than a pessimist”), FDR’s adaptive skills and Lincoln’s political cunning.

The closest modern parallel to McKinley may be Dwight Eisenhower and his canny “hidden hand” style of management. As likeable as Ike, McKinley cautioned a fellow pol, “Never keep books in politics,” advice from which more recent White House occupants might profit. Both men hid a capacity for ruthlessness behind a genial facade. “I don’t think that McKinley ever let anything stand in the way of his own advancement,” a Buckeye acquaintance observed. Mr. Merry agrees, citing an offer to the younger McKinley of a railroad job worth $25,000 a year, more than enough to guarantee his financial security while simultaneously defraying the costs of caring for Ida. McKinley rejected the sinecure, no doubt graciously. His slavish devotion to Ida did not exceed his desire to be president.

What Mr. Merry calls the McKinley mystery remains. Was he an agent of change or merely its passive beneficiary? “We have come to regard true presidential greatness as consisting of boldness, brashness, directness, and flamboyance,” the author contends. Stolid and self-effacing, McKinley played by his own set of rules. “He had a way of handling men so that they thought his ideas were their own,” explained Secretary of War Elihu Root. “He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”

The annexation of Hawaii bears out Root’s claim. “Of course I have my ideas about Hawaii,” McKinley notified an island representative early in his presidency, “but consider that it is best at the present time not to make known what my policy is.” Privately he spoke of Manifest Destiny, insisting that “we need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California.” Unable to persuade two-thirds of the Senate to pass a treaty of annexation, McKinley settled for a simple joint resolution. He was equally resourceful in prying Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam from the fading grip of imperial Spain.

Ultimately it is McKinley’s expansionist foreign policy that justifies his status as the most consequential president you’ve never heard of. Left to himself, his gradualist approach—“patiently nudging events incrementally to the desired goal,” says Mr. Merry—might have achieved Cuban independence without humiliating Spain or spilling American blood in Cuban jungles. Unfortunately prospects for a peaceful settlement exploded along with the battleship USS Maine on the night of Feb. 15, 1898. Amidst the ensuing public outrage McKinley bought time by convening a naval board of inquiry. When the board blamed the Maine disaster on an external explosion, the president found himself “caught between congressional agitation and Spanish intransigence.”

In April 1898, an upstairs office became the first White House War Room, with 15 telephone lines and 20 telegraph machines to keep McKinley abreast of far-flung combat. In Manila Bay a decrepit Spanish fleet offered scant resistance to the steel flotilla of Adm. George Dewey. Cuban independence exacted a higher toll. Thanks in part to McKinley’s incompetent secretary of war, Russell Alger, more Americans in Cuba died from typhoid fever than Spanish bullets. Moreover, in Asia the fruits of victory contained seeds of insurrection, as McKinley’s belated claim to the Philippines ignited a guerilla resistance that bears striking resemblance to that of post-Saddam Iraq. What the president called “benevolent assimilation” looked to rebel fighters suspiciously like the former Spanish occupation.

Nothing about his presidency so foreshadowed the future as McKinley’s failure to consult Congress before dispatching 5,000 U.S. troops to help suppress the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion in China. The presidential luck held as both it and the Philippine uprisings were eventually quelled, and voters endorsed his imperial agenda in the 1900 elections. McKinley’s luck ran out on the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1901, when, six months into his second term, a failed anarchist, the Oswald of his day, fired two bullets at the president as he shook hands with the public at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. Thus it fell to his dynamic successor to build the trans-ocean canal that McKinley had envisioned, battle the trusts and become the first incumbent president to leave American soil.

As Theodore Roosevelt redefined presidential leadership in the new century McKinley faded from public memory. Yet as this splendid revisionist narrative makes plain, his legacy includes three rules to guide his successors: Transformative leadership wears many faces. The presidency is no job for a political amateur. Character counts, sometimes even more than charisma.

Simon & Schuster, 608 pages $35

Mr. Smith is the author, most recently, of “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.”