Vice Presidents Collage

McKinley: Mountains, Molehills and a Vice Presidential Monadnock

Criticizing President Obama for renaming Mt. McKinley is a full-scale nothing burger as far as controversies go. McKinley was a decent man who tried to be a decent president, but he sure wasn’t Lincoln. No one would argue he was one of the greats.


FDR claimed he faced more tough decisions in a day than McKinley faced in a week. 


Aside: It is interesting to think how far an era can reach back, or, to paraphrase William Faulkner, how far back the past is still present. McKinley was not ancient history in Roosevelt’s day. The last Civil War veterans were departing the scene in the 1930s and when FDR travelled to the Hermitage he met an old woman who, as a little girl, had known former President Andrew Jackson. My own grandfather was born in 1898 so, in a small way I feel some connection to the Baltimore that H.L. Mencken called a medieval city of tiny twisting streets clogged with horse drawn carriages t

hat existed before the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. I remember as as boy old men who saw that fire when they were little boys. One day my children will tell their grand-children about their great-grandfather who was born back in 1970 – a time as remote as 1870 is to me – before the Internet was invented, when cars didn’t drive themselves and ran on old dinosaurs. More significantly they will mention meeting Holocaust survivors and World War 2 veterans – my children will be the last generation to meet such people in person.


Back to McKinley: FDR’s critique was not completely fair. McKinley managed a pair of major economic issues – rejecting bi-metalism and keeping the U.S. on the gold standard and a major tariff bill. He also oversaw a global war, the first stirring of American global power. He also saw some of the beginnings of the modern presidency. He had a larger staff headed by an influential Secretary, George Cortelyou, who was a predecessor to the modern chief of staff and went on to hold several cabinet positions.

Vice President Garrett Hobart

McKinley (left) and Hobart vacationing at Lake Champlain

But McKinley was close to my heart because of his Vice President. For six decades before McKinley and for almost eight afterwards, the Vice President was a figure of no consequence in administration councils. McKinley was different, he included Vice President Garrett Hobart in nearly every major decision, meeting with the Vice President frequently and assigning significant tasks. It was enough that I managed to do a case study on him for my dissertation. I won’t reveal everything (I have to save something for the book). But, Hobart helped persuade McKinley to reject bimetalism and ran the campaign’s east coast operation. Hobart was praised for his tact in presiding over the Senate and famously advised McKinley that he had to act against Spain after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, or the Senate would do so (McKinley was a Civil War veteran and had no desire for war). Later Hobart fired the incompetent Secretary of War. Hobart’s wife also assumed the duties of lead Washington hostess when McKinley’s sickly wife was unable to do so.


An editorial in The Washington Post wrote:

The Vice Presidency, under his administration, has become a place of dignity and influence…. He has become a conspicuous factor in our scheme of government. Vice Presidnets do not usually make a mark…. Mr. Hobart, however, has convinced the country of his personality and weight, and show us that the office he fills is one of possible usefulness and potency.

Now, let one thing remain clear, the vice president only matters to the extent the president allows it. Hobart was unique over the course of 150 years (between Martin Van Buren and Walter Mondale) because McKinley thought it was helpful. So in that small way, McKinley remains a lonely monadnock among generations of presidents.

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