Karl Rove Shows How Trump And Cruz Are Genteel Compared To Days Of Yore
Consider this vignette from a brilliant new book on the first modern presidential campaign by maybe the greatest living Republican political strategist, Karl Rove — a man who knows how to throw a political punch. In it Rove describes a long-ago Texas Republican political convention (of interest, predominantly, although not exclusively, African-American):
The hall exploded. The McKinley men stormed the stage, aiming to push Cuney aside and install Web Flanagan, the GOP’s 1890 gubernatorial candidate, in his place. “One burley negro came plowing through the jam,” an Associated Press reporter wrote, “pushing men in front of him as if they were so much chaff.” Behind him was a determined, fast-moving angry mob of five hundred McKinley men. Cuney expected the assault: his people were prepared to defend the podium and him. “The first negro to reach the stand made a lunge at Cuney’s head with a fist,” an eyewitness wrote, but little Bill Ellis, Cuney’s longtime right-hand man, moved faster, pulling his revolver and shoving it in the assailant’s face. “The two men eyed each other for ten seconds,” then grappled and went down with “the howling crowd swaying around and about them.” A large table on the stage collapsed under the combatants. Delegates grabbed broken pieces as weapons. Chairs and other tables were smashed over heads or against bodies. Fists, bludgeons, bottles, knives, and razors appeared. Other pistols were drawn, but luckily not used. The fight went on for twenty minutes before the city marshal and a squad of officers arrived and began indiscriminately clubbing delegates.”
Karl Rove has written a splendid book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. It’s a pleasure to read and piquantly relevant to today.
The Triumph tells a dramatic story. McKinley rose from a brave (suicide mission brave!) Civil War soldier to the pinnacle of politics. We follow him as he climbed from the first rung on the political ladder to the presidency. It sometimes provides an intensity of detail that a historian or a political junky craves more than a general reader. Yet the narrative is gripping.
It also gives a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the mind of Karl Rove, a grandmaster among political operatives. I myself have written critically of the post-White House Rove for what I considered a naïve, top-down, approach to digital campaign strategy. That said it’s a great pleasure to be immersed in the mind of a master political strategist at work.
If you're a political or American history junky William McKinley is a must-read book. Rove delved deep into the primary sources and has produced a work that is meticulously researched — 55 pages of footnotes — well written, and extremely discriminating with an eye for the telling detail. There are many fascinating, unjustly forgotten, sagas from American political history revealed.
McKinley took a courageous political stance against a powerful anti-Catholic faction of the GOP. Rove also reminds us how the GOP, the Party of Lincoln, was the home of African Americans… who dominated most of the powerful southern state GOP party committees, a crucial portion of the Republican base.
Rove reminds us as to how the southern Democratic Party of that era was engaged in vicious and concerted voter suppression of blacks, such as by the Ku Klux Klan. Such violent perfidy shows the accusations against the modern GOP of voter suppression are by comparison flimsy. One infers a lesson that voter suppression, reprehensible now as then, was engaged in, then as now, for political advantage, not mainly out of racial animus.
Rove demonstrates how McKinley, with deftness and courage, made path breaking strides to include African Americans more fully, and with more dignity, in the presidential electoral process. One wishes that the modern GOP would take the hint and follow suit.
This points to a — surely unintentional — recent historical injustice. The last you may have heard of William McKinley is last year when President Obama — our first African-American president -- renamed Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, Denali. Considering McKinley's stature as a champion for the dignity of African Americans that really is rather a pity.
The most exciting chapter of the book presents the 1896 Democratic presidential nominating convention that — astoundingly — nominated William Jennings Bryan for president. Bryan there gave what may be the most famous speech in the history of presidential politics:
The Coliseum was quiet a moment more and then exploded. Men and women jumped on their chairs screaming, arms and fists striking at the air. Hats sailed skyward or were waved along with handkerchiefs, flags, canes, fans, umbrellas, newspapers, and coats, anything that could be grabbed and flourished. “I had never dreamed that a mortal man could so grip and fill with enthusiasm thousands of men,” Daniels later wrote. The floor and galleries were a mass of “frenzied thongs” of “shouters … besides themselves.”
Bryan now mostly is remembered as the prototype for the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, for prosecuting John Scopes for teaching evolution in the Tennessee public schools, and for his role in the formation of the Federal Reserve System (which indeed became the instrumentality of the economically pernicious “easy money” policy -- “Free Coinage of Silver” -- that propelled Bryan to nomination).
President McKinley was an extraordinary, now much under-celebrated, president. He was deeply mourned after his assassination, soon after his re-election, by an anarchist — an event outside the scope of Rove’s book. Wayne Morgan, in a 2003 biography, called McKinley “the most beloved president in history.”
Comes now Karl Rove to bring to life the drama of William McKinley’s life and first campaign for the presidency. Rove provides a wonderful blend of narrative, scholarship, and knowing mastery of political campaign strategy. If you find politics, political intrigue or American history compelling you will devour The Triumph of William McKinley.
Ralph Benko is senior advisor, economics, to American Principles in Action's Gold Standard 2012 Initiative, and a contributor to the ARRA News Service. Founder of The Prosperity Caucus, he was a member of the Jack Kemp supply-side team, served in an unrelated area as a deputy general counsel in the Reagan White House. The article which first appeared in Forbes.
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