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William McKinley by Kevin Phillips
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As part of my ongoing quest to read a book about every U.S. President, I picked up this volume. Having read a few books and numerous articles by Kevin Phillips, and a number of books in this series, I expected more than I found.

Schlesinger's series offers single-volume biographies of all the Presidents. For the fair-to-middling Presidents without major historical importance, I've relied on this series to fill a lot of the gaps in my quest. The series has been uniformly well written, concise, and informative. None of them go into great detail, but for these Presidential lesser-lights the biographies have been quite adequate.

My problem with Phillips book is is that it isn't truly a biography, but rather a pastiche of gilded age facts and figures, placing McKinley in the context of his times. It is as though he describes an exquisite picture frame and explains how perfectly it suits a portrait of McKinley, but says little about the actual portrait. A key fact about McKinley is that he was assassinated, which Phillips barely mentions; a casual reader might even miss this key fact. And we learn very little about his wife, except that she was terribly ill, prone to epileptic seizures. Perhaps McKinley left little historical record to work with, but surely there was editorial and news coverage to draw on, particularly concerning his assassination, that could have made this into a true biography.

Phillips makes an excellent case that McKinley set the stage for the entire progressive era, following in the footsteps of his hero and mentor Rutherford B. Hayes who also had progressive tendencies. This is an important story to learn, but I think McKinley deserves a longer telling of that story. ( )
  cvanhasselt | Aug 23, 2013 |
And, I'm done with the Fall Challenge! WOO HOO!! And now for William McKinley's major accomplishments and "scandals":

Accomplishments:
* Kicked serious butt during the Spanish-American War. And I do mean HE kicked butt... He was a Civil War veteran and a VERY competent Commander-in-Chief. He set up the very Presidential War Room with telephones and telegraphs and was in constant contact with people in Cuba and on the battlefield, and if he didn't like what army leaders were doing or they weren't getting things done fast enough, he had no qualms about stepping in and giving direction. The war was effective by land and sea, only lasted from April 25 to August 12, with a final peace treaty signed in December. Final battlefield losses: 27 officers and 318 enlisted men died in combat or due to wounds sustained in combat. (Errr... and another 2500 officers and men died of diseases like typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever, thanks to the lovely battle locals—Cuba and the Philippines... Not really McKinley's fault there...)
* Cemented Concreted the relationship between the US and Great Britain, which would be critical to winning WWI; Also signed a peace treaty with Russia
* Finalized location of Panama Canal (it was going to be in Nicaragua!)
* Brought the country out of an economic depression (with tariffs and establishing the gold standard)
* Through Span-Am War and economic boom, turned the US into a world power
* Was pro-universal suffrage (although he didn't do much about it as president)
* Upheld Lincoln's decision to allow Blacks in the military forces. Black troops fought in the Philippines along with ex-Confederate soldiers who McKinley brought in as officers, thus helping heal the still-wounded-from-the-Civil-War nation.
* Was GREATLY admired, especially due to the fact that he took care of his invalid wife (including reading the Bible to her most nights), Ida, until his death (she was epileptic and suffered from depression, on account of losing both her children)
* Was a good guy—kind, humble, diplomatic, principled, etc. Always let others take credit where credit was due, and often didn't take credit for his own accomplishments. He often used such skilled diplomacy with his own staff that they ended up feeling like his idea had originally been their idea.

Scandals:
* Some people felt that McKinley didn't act quickly enough in declaring war on Spain after a US ship mysteriously blew up in port off of Cuba. Navy officials were convinced that it was a deliberate act of aggression by the Spanish and were pressing him to go to war. According to the author, the people in the US also wanted justice. In the two months McKinley waited, which was in part because he wanted to find a peaceful solution (he'd fought in a war, and wasn't exactly itching to have the country involved in ANOTHER war), the US was able to build up a stronger navy and then SOUNDLY defeat the Spanish by sea. Also, it turns out the explosion was caused from within the ship (faulty coal or something?) and was accidental.... Totally NOT the Spaniards' doing...
* The economic upswing resulted in acceptance of huge trusts and monopolies. (History proves that McKinley HATED trusts/monopolies, and most people agree that he would have tried to control them with regulations had he lived.)
* Other than that, nothing major. Many people thought he was weak and compliant, that he had no firm convictions of his own. Some people suspected that he was just a puppet and that Mark Hanna was pulling the strings. He had a middle-class demeanor and wasn't an extraordinary speaker.
* According to the author, over the years, people have come to think that he wasn't very well educated (because he couldn't quote the great philosophers or whatever like some previous presidents could), but he actually read extensively—mostly nonfiction on whatever political, economical, etc. subject he felt was important or he needed to know more about at the time. (BORING...)
* (Not really a scandal, but...) McKinley didn't keep many written records... at all... so many of his accomplishments have been attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (his VP/successor), who was must "better" at drawing attention to himself...

Was that long enough? I'm not sure that was long enough... ;) ( )
  saraferrell | Apr 3, 2013 |
William McKinley is usually considered a middling US President - not in the top tier of presidents, but not at the bottom either. As one of the later Gilded Age administrations, McKinley and his cabinet are mostly remembered for events like the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Philippines and for arguments over tariffs and the gold standard. He's considered by most historians to be fairly passive in leading by public opinion and to be the first president to use a modern approach to the press. And his assassination opened the door to Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives.

In this volume of the American Presidents series, Kevin Phillips makes the case that McKinley should be considered a much stronger leader who began many of the initiatives later completed by Roosevelt and later Progressive administrations, and should be included in the second tier of presidents, well above where he usually falls in rankings today. If true, there's a disconnect in understanding McKinley, and I'm not sure I buy Phillips' reasoning. McKinley left very little in the way of personal papers and items normally considered direct sources. Phillips instead relies on writings by others around McKinley and some rather speculative interpretation of McKinley's words and deeds. Part of what most bothered me about Phillips' discussion is his speculation on what McKinley "would have done" had he not been assassinated in 1901. I suppose it's ok to do that, but it's a stretch.

Is McKinley the passive placeholder that Phillips put forth as other historians' opinions? Probably not. He was very popular, and did indeed seem to do some things that show a Progressive bent. Would he have brought about the kind of change that Roosevelt did? Should we view Teddy as a continuation of work begun by McKinley? Probably not. Teddy put his own mark on things and did things his own way. But the real McKinley is somewhere in the middle there as a mix of all these aspects. And almost certainly deserving of more respect than he often gets. ( )
1 vote drneutron | Mar 13, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805069534, Hardcover)

A bestselling historian and political commentator reconsiders McKinley's overshadowed legacy

By any serious measurement, bestselling historian Kevin Phillips argues, William McKinley was a major American president. It was during his administration that the United States made its diplomatic and military debut as a world power. McKinley was one of eight presidents who, either in the White House or on the battlefield, stood as principals in successful wars, and he was among the six or seven to take office in what became recognized as a major realignment of the U.S. party system.

Phillips, author of Wealth and Democracy and The Cousins' War, has long been fascinated with McKinley in the context of how the GOP began each of its cycles of power. He argues that McKinley's lackluster ratings have been sustained not by unjust biographers but by years of criticism about his personality, indirect methodologies, middle-class demeanor, and tactical inability to inspire the American public. In this powerful and persuasive biography, Phillips musters convincing evidence that McKinley's desire to heal, renew prosperity, and reunite the country qualify him for promotion into the ranks of the best chief executives.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:52 -0400)

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