The Triumph Of William McKinley: Why The Election of 1896 Still Matters, by Karl Rove
I have to admit at the outset that I am pleasantly surprised by how good this book is, having never read a book from the former senior adviser to President George W Bush. When reading a book like this , one has to be very aware of the purpose and agenda of the book. No one writes books that are nearly 400 pages of core text without having a purpose, and when the book comes from someone involved in politics, the certainty of there being some kind of ulterior motive is even higher. In this particular case, the ulterior motive is pretty clear in that Rove has some definite ideas about what sort of Republican party there should be, arguing implicitly through his historical analysis of McKinley’s rise to power that it was the inclusiveness of McKinley’s vision for the GOP and his ability to avoid treating people as permanent enemies that allowed him to build an enduring coalition that lasted for nearly four decades of Republican dominance from 1896 to 1932. People reading this book in light of the 2016 election can come to different conclusions, like the fact that a candidate with commitment to the well-being of the commonfolk and a sense of optimism can undercut the power of political bosses through appealing directly to the grass roots of a party while building a successful coalition, even if the specific makeup of that coalition can differ. The triumph of McKinley, like any success, can be attributed to any number of factors, and different people may draw lessons from different factors than the author does given his own perspective and rhetorical aim.
This book is a sizable work, one that begins by giving the context of McKinley’s life including his rise to power within the frequently decisive swing state of Ohio. Of the book’s 29 chapters, roughly half of them take place before McKinley was chosen as the Republican nominee in 1896, itself a moment of drama, and about half of the chapters look at the campaign itself. Rove is part of a group of revisionist historians who view McKinley as more than a genial nonentity but as someone whose character, ideals, and ability to notice talent and successful recruit it make him a notable if somewhat transitional character in the tail end of one generation of politics with weak presidents and the lingering influence of the Civil War on the electorate and the beginning of the age of American imperialism. The book also spends a lot of time focusing on McKinley’s opponent, the charismatic but radical and undisciplined William Jennings Bryan, whose rise to power gives Rove the chance to make some subtle (or not-so-subtle) digs at populism and its lack of broad appeal in the American republic, something which clearly has not been the case recently. Particularly of interest is the way that Rove demonstrates how McKinley drew correct insights about Bryan’s rise and the dangers of straddling on the important issue of sound money, which allowed McKinley to build a coalition including conservative Democrats concerned about Bryan’s radicalism.
What kind of book should one expect in reading this? Well, the book has an excellent style and is well-researched, with extensive endnotes. The author is genial and has a lot of positive comments to make about McKinley, and manages to keep his ulterior motives from being too offensive to the reader. If you a taste for detailed political reportage from about a century or so ago, and really enjoy the tactics and strategies and logistics of political campaigns, this is a good book. Despite the fact that I drew somewhat different lessons than the author did, I found this book to be a worthwhile combination of historical biography and election analysis, both of which happen to be genres of nonfiction writing I find to be enjoyable to read. To be sure, not everyone will find McKinley to be a winning character, although his high-minded ideals about racial and religious toleration and acceptance ought to be worthy of praise, and his knowledge of his own limitations as a stump speaker and his preference for prepared speeches led him to avoid trying to engage in a negative campaign against the pugnacious Bryan, but rather to play to his own strengths. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we do best to play to our strengths while also making our opponent’s strengths into weaknesses, something this book discusses very well, giving a compelling reason why we should care about the 1896 election in the face of a divided populace and the rise of populism and the concern among common people about the difficulties of rising to the level of one’s abilities and ambitions.
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