Karl Rove: the master strategist as master story teller

I normally don’t recommend books on Power Line unless I’ve read them from beginning to end. However, I’m making an exception for Karl Rove’s The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.

Why? First, because I’m in the early-middle of a long history of Austria and probably won’t make any headway on Rove’s book (beyond the first chapter, which I have read) for some time. Second, I’ve been a McKinley fan ever since reading William McKinley and His America by Wayne Morgan some years ago. Third, and most importantly, watching Rove discuss his book before an audience at AEI convinced me that he has mastered the subject and tells his story with gusto.

Specifically, I’m convinced of what Doris Kearns Goodwin says in her endorsement of the book:

The Triumph of McKinley is the Triumph of Karl Rove. This is a rousing tale told by a master storyteller whose love of politics, campaigning, and combat shines through on every page. Both the man and his times are brought to such vivid life that I felt myself catapulted back to the turn of the last century. And it was great fun to be there.

Does McKinely’s triumph over William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896 still matter? I’ll reserve judgment on that question until I’ve finished reading the book. There’s no doubt, though, that the election changed the political landscape for many decades.

Although Republicans had controlled the White House for all but eight years from 1861 until 1897, most of the presidential elections during that period had been close (some extraordinarily so) and the Democrats had often controlled at least one chamber of Congress.

From 1897 until 1933, Republicans held the White House for 28 years, the Senate for 30, and the House for 26. The GOP lost power only when it split apart after Teddy Roosevelt (McKinley’s second vice president) bolted.

Rove argues that this amazing run was due to the realignment that occurred in 1896. In his words, the GOP suddenly became “a frothy, diverse coalition of owners and workers, longtime Americans and new citizens, lifetime Republicans and fresh converts drawn together by common beliefs and allegiances.”

I think we can see where Rove is going with this.

Today, nearly all Republicans venerate Ronald Reagan’ presidency, and Calvin Coolidge’s stock has soared among conservatives lately. (Coolidge is linked to McKinley in that his vice president, Charles Dawes, was McKinley’s “boy” campaign manager in 1896.) McKinley, meanwhile, is forgotten.

He shouldn’t be. McKinley was a Civil War hero, a successful governor of Ohio, a highly influential member of Congress, an effective and beloved President, and a man of extraordinary character and judgment.

I’m hoping that, with the publication of The Triumph of William McKinley, the man and his presidency (which is beyond the scope of Rove’s book, but worthy of exploration) will begin to receive the attention they deserve.


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