The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century
by Scott Miller
Reviewed by Elinor Langer
Even without the intrinsic draw of the 1901 presidential assassination that shapes its pages, Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century would be absorbing reading. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal with a flair for presenting complicated issues and personalities as an intelligible whole, Miller examines the social, economic and political forces that underlay the transformation of the U.S. after the Civil War from a feeble newcomer in world affairs to the global power we know today in a way that keeps you learning and turning pages at the same time. Rewarding as it is to be able to grasp at last such late 19th-century mysteries as the monetary debates that have befuddled college students ever since, what makes the book compelling is neither the narrative nor the explanations but the sense of familiarity that pervades it all. Indeed, so many of the circumstances and events of the earlier time have parallels in our own that the experience of reading it is practically eerie.
The key to the similarities between then and now lies in the "historic shift in the role of business in American politics" in the 1896 election. Rich Democrats supported Republican William McKinley, corporations made direct contributions for the first time and millionaires marched in the streets of New York. That was all to defeat populist orator William Jennings Bryan, who proposed to take the U.S. off the gold standard to provide the farmers and workers who were his followers with more money. And money they badly needed.
"For every tycoon smoking cigars wrapped in hundred-dollar bills ... there were tens of thousands of ... workers for whom life was simply a battle for existence," Miller writes. In this period of huge industrial expansion, it was not unemployment, but wages too low to provide even a fully-employed laborer with enough income to feed a family that was to blame. "'I don't live. I am literally starving,'" a Cincinnati cigar maker told an interviewer who asked how he supported his wife and three children on $5 per week. The same interests that benefited from the unequal distribution of wealth at home also benefited from the acquisition of territory abroad, as the U.S. took over from defeated Spain its former colonies, including Cuba and the Philippines, along with the bitter insurgents who had launched the anti-imperial struggles in the first place.
But it is in the details as much as in the larger framework that some of the most striking echoes seem to lie.
It is impossible to read about the strong-arming corporate-guarding Pinkertons of the past without the strong-arming corporate-guarding Blackwaters of the present springing spontaneously to mind. Anarchist theorist Johann Most's handbook on explosives, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, is right at home on the Internet. Emma Goldman's lover Alexander Berkman was a Russian anarchist and not a Muslim terrorist, but his doubly-failed plan to blow himself up with nitroglycerine after assassinating Pennsylvania steel magnate Henry Clay Frick reads like today's suicide bomber headlines. The hunt for Philippine guerilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo who "would time and again slip through [the] fingers" of the Americans pursuing him was led by the very general who had led the hunt for Apache Chief Geronimo, the recent code name for Osama bin Laden. That water torture was first used by American soldiers to coerce information from Aguinaldo's followers makes it all the more chilling.
Historical analogies are both irresistible and inexact, and Miller has wisely chosen to let them speak for themselves, but he has made his point. The fatal encounter of McKinley and friendless anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Buffalo, N.Y., fairgrounds was a singular occurrence, but it was embedded in the life of its times. What readers take away from this lucid and disturbing book will inevitably vary with what they bring to it in the first place, but one possibility is, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer -- and sometimes the poor even get mad."