mckinley, a genius at manipulation -- 8/31/16

Today's encore selection -- from The Politics of War by Walter Karp. William McKinley, Jr. (1843-1901), the 25th President of the United States, was viewed by most contemporaries as amiable but weak. A native of Ohio who led the U.S. into the Spanish-American War, historians have posthumously credited him with forging the Republican coalition that dominated national politics for thirty years -- through the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz and succeeded by his vice president Theodore Roosevelt:

"To most of his contemporaries, William McKinley was an insoluble puzzle. Men never knew quite what to make of him either as a man or as a leader. What were his political intentions? Nobody could say for certain. Did he even have any intentions of his own? A good many people doubted it. McKinley's public utterances -- vague, windy, and oracular -- never disclosed his real aims. His actions -- ambiguous and self-contradictory -- never quite revealed his policies.

"Those who visited him at the White House came away impressed with his sweetness of temper, his soothing disposition, his willingness to please, to placate, to agree, but they saw few signs of personal force or deeply held conviction. On the whole, men thought him amiably weak. It was the obvious conclusion to draw from cautious speeches, ambiguous actions, and the personal manner of the professional charmer who shrinks from giving offense. Since the President never sought to correct such impressions, men could well conclude that he was not only weak but supine. Few American Presidents were so widely regarded in their own time as the instrument of other men's visions, the tool of other men's ambitions, or the victim of sheer, inescapable circumstance.

"A few men knew better. One of them was McKinley's future secretary of state, John Hay, [as a young man he had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary], who wrote to Henry Adams shortly after visiting McKinley during the 1896 election campaign: 'I was more struck than ever by his mask. It is a genuine Italian ecclesiastical face of the fifteenth century. And there are idiots who think [campaign manager and U.S. Senator] Mark Hanna will run him.' Hay's physiognomical insight was particularly keen. The White House has rarely known a President more devious, crafty, or subtle than the amiable, mild-mannered McKinley and few so adept at getting what he wanted. He was, remarked Adams, 'easily first in genius for manipulation.' That was exactly the truth. McKinley was a political genius, and manipulation was the mode of his genius. Among American Presidents he is the supreme example of the political wirepuller, the leader who gets things done without ever seeming to lead.

"If contemporaries never knew McKinley's intentions it was because the President never candidly avowed them to anyone. If he seemed to be the victim of events, it was because he was master of the fait accompli, the patient contriver of circumstances which, as he would ruefully announce, gave him no choice but to do exactly what he privately wanted. Although he kept his goals secret, McKinley was superbly adept at letting those who had to divine them divine them correctly and at getting them to do what he wanted without ever openly declaring that he wanted it. Inevitably the men McKinley bent to his purposes often stole the limelight from the President, but McKinley cared nothing for the limelight. 'He was a man of great power,' his secretary of war Elihu Root recalled after his death, 'because he was absolutely indifferent to credit ... but McKinley always had his way.'

"McKinley's lack of personal vanity -- a lack bordering on shamelessness -- was his greatest political asset. Few Presidents would have tolerated as McKinley did so complacently the insulting charge of being Mark Hanna's puppet. McKinley, however, had every reason to tolerate the insult, for Hanna, in fact, was the President's front man, the one who did all his political dirty work and who suffered all the consequent abuse. During the 1896 election campaign Democrats brutally assailed Hanna while 'the Major' went through the campaign virtually uncriticized. If McKinley appeared weak, vacillating, and passive, the tool of others and the slave of circumstance, it was because he wished to appear that way. The appearance was a political necessity. In order to get what he wanted, McKinley had to go to great lengths to deny that he wanted anything at all."


Walter Karp


Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic


Franklin Square Press


Copyright 1979 by Walter Karp


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment