Taking the Measure of Mr. McKinley

Out of 44 US presidents, a handful are well known to the general public. The rest are little more than names. For every Lincoln, there are several presidents with the obscurity of an Arthur, Harrison, or Pierce.

William McKinley fares slightly better than most presidents. We know he was one of four presidents who were assassinated (on September 14th, 1901). Yet even the distinction of his death is overshadowed by the rise of his successor Theodore Roosevelt—one of those memorable presidents.

Teddy the Pumpkin by J.C. Leyendecker
McKinley was quickly overshadowed by his larger-than-life successor, as evident by this 1912 Post cover.

You might remember McKinley was chief executive during the Spanish-American war. And of course, you are all familiar with the face, which looks up at you from your $500 bills. But is there anything else to the man?

While he was president, The Saturday Evening Post reported on his policies (tariff protection for businesses and the gold standard forever) but said little about him personally. After his death, he merited little mention; the Post was more interested in Teddy, that fiery, young progressive.

One article in 1910, written by the head of White House security, talked about “The Home Life of McKinley.” The author, W. H. Crook, worked with McKinley for four years, yet he obviously struggled to find something distinctive to say about the man.

There was little of real gayety in the White House during President McKinley’s residence… gayety, lightness, mirth and merriment were foreign to his nature. President McKinley, like his wife, always dressed well, but neither of them had any expensive tastes that I am aware of. He was quite content to drive out, every pleasant afternoon, back of a pair of horses that were good enough roadsters for the average American gentleman to possess.

Beyond these daily drives in and about Washington and walks around the White House grounds… Mr. McKinley did not take much exercise. He did not care for billiards or golf or tennis, or — so far as I knew — for hunting and fishing.
One thing he thoroughly did enjoy, however, was a moderately good cigar — a fairly good cigar, I mean — well made, of suitable size, consisting principally of domestic leaf. For expensive choice imported cigars he did not care at all.

As a young Ohio governor, McKinley had been an eager progressive who’d taken bold steps to relieve poverty in his state. By the time he was president, he’d become a somber, unimaginative man whose one passion, it appears, was for cigars that were only moderately good.

Fortunately we have a better account of the man, written for the Post in 1904 by John S. Wise, a Virginia Congressman. The McKinley that Wise describes is more human, more believable, and far more interesting.

McKinley was a great peacemaker. He discouraged all kinds of acrimony in the debates. I am afraid I cannot say the same for myself. I think, and have always thought, that it is a good thing now and then to tell a political opponent just what you think of him. One day I had a royal tilt with a peppery old member from Indiana… McKinley, after it was all over, took occasion to give me some friendly advice. “Don’t allow them to draw you into such controversies,” he said. “No good can come of them. You may provoke them into turning you out. I have a contest. But you never hear of that. I go on about my business and I am not ashamed to make myself useful by working hard on their committees. You ought to do the same. I like you and don’t want to see you turned out, but if you taunt them and defy them, as you do, you will tempt them to unseat you.”

Not long after, a political opponent managed to successfully challenge McKinley’s election and unseat him.

“The interview opened by McKinley telling me how much attached to me he was.”

His defeat did not amount to much, for his term was nearly ended, and he was re-elected, but he took it very solemnly. I was sorry for him, but could not resist a little badinage. I passed by his desk where he was tying up his papers and preparing to depart with the resigned air of a Christian martyr.

“Old fellow,” said I, “I feel awfully about this, but you brought it all upon yourself. You would not listen to my advice. If you had gone along quietly and had not attracted attention to your case by wrangling and abusing your political opponents, you might have finished your term undisturbed. Look at me! Why did you not follow my example?”

McKinley had big, sad eyes when he was depressed. Turning them toward me with a pained expression, he saw no joke in what I was saying and contented himself by replying: “I think that sort of thing is, under the circumstance, very unkind.”

When the sting of his defeat wore off, he enjoyed the way I had turned the tale on him and fully forgave me.

McKinley and Wise became political allies, and when McKinley had won the national election, he was ready to reward his friends.

The President-elect asked me what position I wanted. I told him I was like Beverley Tucker, when Stephen A Douglas said to him “Bev, what shall I do for you when I am President?” Tucker was a fellow of infinite jest. “Stephen, old boy,” he replied quickly, “when you are President just walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with me, your arm about my neck, and call me ‘Bev’ — and I will do the rest.” The joke pleased McKinley immensely and I heard of his repeating it after afterward.

Wise seems to have liked McKinley as a person, but he clearly recognized the man’s limitations. In his recollections of the president, he never confused political skills with personal virtues.

He was naturally an amicable man, but exceedingly ambitious — so ambitious that he had no idea of imperiling any personal interest for friendly inclinations. If it was necessary to sacrifice a weak friend to propitiate a powerful enemy, he would not hesitate for one moment to sacrifice the friend. To his powerful friends, on whom he was dependent, he was loyal to the point of doing anything they required, even things which his judgment or his conscience did not approve, but that was only another form of selfishness. His natural inclination to weaker friends was kindly, and when he might assist them, without danger to himself, he did so with a show of great generosity. But when doing so called on him to imperil any selfish interest he did not hesitate to leave them in the lurch.

Although he was a kind-hearted man, he was a very timid, calculating person, and although, personally, not corrupt, he was under many bad and venal influences.

Wise might have felt entitled to be unflinchingly honest because McKinley went back on a promise he made to give the Virginian a valuable appointment. But shortly before he was killed, McKinley rewarded Wise’s past favors by giving his son a promotion to Major in the Army. We might disapprove of such an obvious political kickback, but Wise saw it as a redeeming sign of faith in an old crony. It probably tempered some of his more critical remarks.

The criticisms I have passed upon him above, although they were deserved, do not destroy or materially weaken a feeling of affection which I always felt for him, and although his friendship failed me once on a pinch, he showed me many times his kindness of heart, friendly interest, and desire to serve me, when he did not have to endanger himself. That was his nature and he could not change it. On the whole, it was a nature far above the average of mankind in sweetness and kindliness, and not a whit below the average in selfishness.

What saved McKinley and will pass his name down to history as a much greater man than he really was is that he had a singularly able coterie of men about him, and presided over the destinies of this Nation when our people were more prosperous, more virile, more ready to work out their own destiny and achieve their own glory, than they ever had been before or may ever be again.

Download this article as a PDF Read “Echoes of Greatness” by John S. Wise, published October 14, 1905.