President McKinley: Architect of the American Century
by Robert W. Merry (Simon & Schuster, $35)
At a moment when many people have had enough of loudmouthed leadership in Washington, “there may be no better model for political emulation than William McKinley,” said John Coyne in The Washington Times. In a new biography that provides a “badly needed” call for recalibrating how we rank our presidents, historian and conservative magazine editor Robert Merry reconsiders Teddy Roosevelt’s predecessor and finds that the drama-ducking Ohioan did more than TR to establish the U.S. as a world power and define its role on that stage. Assassinated in 1901 by a deranged anarchist, McKinley was barely in his grave before the blustery Roosevelt eclipsed him in the public’s imagination. That’s unjust, said Richard Norton Smith in The Wall Street Journal. Judged by his record, he’s “the most consequential president you’ve never heard of.”
By cultivating the Republican Party’s national brand, McKinley “transformed presidential politics,” said Evan Thomas in The New York Times. More meaningful, though, was his transformation from protectionist to globalist after his 1896 election. Realizing that an industrial economy needed overseas markets, he annexed Hawaii, went to war to push Spain out of the Caribbean and the Philippines, and established an open-door policy with China. Mark Twain slammed McKinley’s imperialist adventures, but the president felt he was spreading Christian values, and the balance he struck between projecting power and serving humanitarian ends set the guideposts for future U.S. foreign policy.
Still, “while McKinley can be seen as an architect of the American Century, he was not the architect,” said Paul Starobin in City Journal. Military leaders, senators, and other presidents played significant roles in creating the superpower we know today, and no country could fulfill that role for so long if the propensity to do so weren’t “firmly rooted in national culture.” But McKinley, though mild-mannered, was a devout Methodist who stamped his ideals on America’s global expansion. The American Century is arguably all our doing. Even so, “McKinley’s hand shows.” ■