The First Modern President – The New York Times

The First Modern President – The New York Times

It is true that the idea of making the United States a global maritime power, a potential rival to Britain and its Royal Navy, was first pushed by Roosevelt and his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, a senator from Massachusetts, who coined the term “the large policy.” Roosevelt wanted to make America a great conquering nation. In a particularly bellicose speech to the Naval War College in 1897, he used the word “war” 62 times.


McKinley disliked such swagger. Unlike Roosevelt, he had experienced combat as a young man. Serving as a quartermaster in the Civil War, McKinley had bravely, if unglamorously, driven a food wagon through heavy fire to deliver supplies to the troops at Antietam. Though he liked to be called “the Major,” he did not boast of his wartime exploits, and at a reunion of old soldiers he once wisely observed, “My comrades, the memories of the war are sweeter than service in the war.”

At the beginning of his administration, McKinley had been wary about making Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy, the job T.R. coveted as a platform to push for American sea power. “I want peace,” McKinley told a mutual acquaintance, “and I am told that your friend Theodore … is always getting into rows with everybody.” When Roosevelt, grudgingly elevated to the post by McKinley, and Senator Lodge began agitating for American intervention in Cuba’s ongoing revolt against Spain, McKinley remarked, “I have been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another.”

Nonetheless, McKinley saw that “isolation is no longer possible or desirable” for a rising industrial giant in a global economy. America needed new markets and protected trade routes. President McKinley told a friendly congressman, “I suspect that Roosevelt is right, and the only difference between him and me is that mine is the greater responsibility.” Merry persuasively contends that McKinley, working quietly and deliberately, through indirection rather than bombast, guided America not only to liberate Cuba from Spain but also to seize the Philippines and press American interests all the way to China. On a scrap of paper, McKinley wrote, “While we are conducting war and until its conclusion, we must keep all we get; when the war is over we must keep what we want.”

McKinley was not a tub-thumper for national grandeur. He spoke more idealistically about the need to “uplift and civilize” the Filipino people. Not unreasonably, he was attacked at the time by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain for hypocritically grabbing foreign lands while trying to sound like a good Christian. But as Merry notes, it was McKinley who first struck a balance between projecting power and serving humanitarian ends — between realism and idealism — that would become the guideposts of 20th-century American foreign policy.

Elected congressman, governor of Ohio and two-term president, McKinley was a highly skilled politician. A sweet-tempered man who forswore carrying grudges, he was loving and endlessly solicitous of his invalided and complaining wife, Ida. Voters seemed to sense that he was kind and thoughtful. But his magnanimity was studied, and he could be ruthlessly manipulative when he needed to be. With his deep-set eyes and fastidious manners, McKinley had a “demeanor of heavy quiet,” Merry writes in a typically descriptive phrase. The president “had a way of handling men so that they thought his ideas were their own,” said Elihu Root, his secretary of war. “He cared nothing about the credit, but McKinley always had his way.”

McKinley ended a period of congressional dominance and centralized federal power in the White House, and he transformed presidential politics by methodically building a national base by identifying voters for the Republican Party rather than simply relying on inspirational speeches.

Merry is not alone in seeing McKinley as the first “modern” president, nor does he claim to be. He forthrightly credits Margaret Leech, whose “In the Days of McKinley” was published in the late 1950s, as well as more modern scholars like Lewis L. Gould and H. Wayne Morgan. He might have also pointed to Karl Rove, the Republican political organizer whose book on the 1896 election, “The Triumph of William McKinley,” identified McKinley as a genius at coalition building. Merry, a casual acquaintance of mine from his days as a Wall Street Journal reporter, is a veteran observer of Washington politics. McKinley is the second president he has rehabilitated; in 2010, Merry published a respectful volume on James K. Polk. He brings an old-school dispassion to his work. While hardly unopinionated — Merry’s “Sands of Empire” (2005) is a sharp attack on the hubris of American interventionism — he has a healthy respect for the facts, wherever they lead. Like his current subject, Merry is methodical and deliberate, perhaps overly so, and readers of “President McKinley” may learn more than they wish about Ohio politics in the 1880s.

Clear and thoroughgoing, Merry’s book is a deft character study of a president. It is also a brief for the slow-and-steady school of leadership, a subtle reminder that showboating moralizers can be balanced by grounded and wiser souls.

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