William McKinley had seen war. It wasn’t about heroics, it was about blood.
So much of his identity was linked to his years serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and he maintained strong ties to all of the various veterans groups, their unqualified support for him as the Republican Presidential candidate in 1896 being a decisive factor in his victory.
By the time the 38-year old well-connected New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt managed to wrangle his appointment as McKinley’s Assistant Navy Secretary in March of 1897, he was itching for military glory, anxious that he would never have the chance given to McKinley’s generation, of proving his manliness by going into battle. But he wasn’t going to stop trying to get into a uniform and go fight – even if meant inciting a mood for war to do it.
His naivete about the reality of war may have been driven by an even greater need than keeping out of harm’s way. In fact, it had been the coddling and caution which surrounded him in childhood, due to his severely asthmatic condition and other “weaklingness,” as he put it, which propelled him. And, with discipline and determination he had built up his physical strength as a young man. But he still wanted to go to war. It was even believed that as a child, Roosevelt had feared an early death. The specter of the Grim Reaper was always behind him. His mother and first wife died within a day of each other. There was no better way to seem victorious over death than to confront it, personally, in war.
During the Republican primaries of 1896, Roosevelt had opposed McKinley’s nomination in support of his friend, Thomas Reed. It wasn’t this, however, which gave McKinley great pause when Roosevelt’s Harvard friend, Boston Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge and others began lobbying the President-elect to appoint the New Yorker to the position of Assistant War Secretary.
Roosevelt had come to McKinley’s home in Canton, Ohio where the candidate had conducted his campaign. McKinley didn’t like him. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the younger man which he didn’t like to be reminded of.
Both had already fine-tuned their highly theatrical public persona.
Roosevelt, with his menacing grin and gnashing mouth full of teeth, spoke in declarative superlatives, eagerness animating this Knickerbocker society elitist. All he seemed to believe he was missing was the glow of a military hero.
McKinley, a journalist quipped, shook hands such sincerity, one felt “almost as if he meant it. ” His gentleness and calm demeanor was as disarming as it was studied. He furrowed his black eyebrows when speaking of tariff protectionism and raised them heavenly when touching on the sanctity of home.
In fact, he was a deadly serious man, formal and reserved. Much as they had nicknamed Roosevelt “Teddy,” the press and then the public nicknamed him “Mack” during the campaign. Nobody, however, dared address McKinley as Mack.
As his fellow Ohioan, future President William Howard Taft put it, “McKinley understood perfectly every slightest motive…McKinley was a man of strong will…[who] accomplished his purpose over men and over things, but largely through their voluntary acquiescence to his will. The quality that overcame those who deal with McKinley was his sweetness.”
In contrast to Roosevelt who seemed to embrace the dare of death, McKinley avoided it at all costs. So painful had been the death of his two daughters, at ages five months old and three and a half years old, that McKinley thought of them as spirits, who aged as living beings did, an idea he encouraged his wife to share.
Roosevelt wanted that job, but he wouldn’t beg for it, but he sensed what McKinley thought of him. “He saw me when I went there during the campaign and if he thinks I am hot-headed and harum-scarum I dont think he will change his mind now,” he told a friend who lobbied the reluctant McKinley on Roosevelt’s behalf. “Moreover I don’t wish to appear as a supplicant.”
McKinley knew that powerful at least one New York boss “hates Roosevelt like poison,” and with good reason. “The truth is Will,” McKinley told Taft with polite distaste, “Roosevelt is always in such a state of mind.”
Yet, something compelled McKinley to appoint Roosevelt. Something troubling also lingered with him after doing so. “I hope he has no preconceived plans which he would wish to drive through the moment he got in,” McKinley told a mutual friend of theirs.
Roosevelt was Assistant Navy Secretary for only three months when, in June of 1897, he delivered a controversial speech entitled, “To Be Prepared for War is he Most Effective Means to Promote Peace.” In it, in he castigated “cowards, or those too feeble” to share his view that “no life is worth having if the Nation is not willing…to pour out its blood…rather than submit to the loss of honor.”
Many in Washington read it as a subtle attack on Mack. McKinley calmly resisted the growing call for him to send naval ships to Cuba, then held as a colony of Spain, as a sign of the U.S. being ready, willing and able to protect American sugar and other industry interests there. Others felt the time had also come to help the Cubans in their quest for liberation from the harsh Spanish rule. Cubans even suspected of supporting independence were thrown in prison or convicted of trumped-up charges of treason. Hundreds of villagers were being confined to concentration camps there by especially harsh Spanish troops.
After a chance meeting and lively conversation with First Lady Ida McKinley’s White House physician, U.S. Army Surgeon Colonel Leonard Wood, Roosevelt was even more hyped up with his conviction that he must help “liberate” Cuba, impressed that Wood had “been all through the last Apache [War] campaign.”
To what degree Colonel Wood was involved is unknown, but two months later when his superior, the Navy Secretary, was out of town, Roosevelt arranged a surprise concert for the First Lady – knowing that it was the one way to break through McKinley’s formality. It worked. Dinners and carriage rides soon followed.
A genius at flattery, McKinley praised Roosevelt’s study on the need to build a modern battleship fleet. Roosevelt used his face time with the President to go on deliriously about going to war with Spain.
McKinley deftly retorted, “I am by no means sure that we shall not have trouble.”
Roosevelt declared his intention to wear a uniform and go fight.
McKinley gave him a distant chuckle, adding that if war came “you can wear a uniform.”
Both men were frustrated with each other.
In trying to pin down a statement of definitive support for war from the President, Roosevelt realized he got the brush-off. McKinley, he told a friend, “generally expressed great satisfaction with what I have done. Of course, the President is a jollier.”
Both played each other. McKinley listened with feigned indifference as Roosevelt outlined a plan to take Cuba and Spain’s other possession of the Philippine Islands. Roosevelt met with Wood, revealing “we both discussed how we could get into the Army that would go to Cuba.”
In February of 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor and Spain was blamed for it (later findings suggested it was an internal mechanical accident). Still, Mack resisted the pressure on him to declare war with Spain. He insisted on trying all venues of diplomatic negotiation. He was not weak, but rather haunted by his visual memory of death the Civil War.
“I have been through one war,” McKinley remarked sadly. “I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another.”
“No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war,” Roosevelt quipped in contrast. “I shall chafe my heart out if I am kept here instead of being at the front.”
Mack’s patience was being tried. The next time he saw Dr. Wood, he couldn’t conceal his contempt for the arrogant young would-be warriors.
“Well?” he asked sarcastically, “have you and Theodore declared war yet?”
Teddy’s patience was being tried. He sneered that McKinley was a “jellyfish,” and famously quipped , “He has all the backbone of a chocolate eclair.”
He might have been correct – given that he cracked it behind Mack’s back.
Shortly thereafter, as McKinley met with his Cabinet on the growing crisis in Cuba, his secretary entered the meeting to say that Assistant Navy Secretary had walked over with the latest cables showing that Spain was moving its warships in a move of challenge.Teddy insisted on seeing the President right away to “inform” him.
Of course, Mack all knew this already, but couldn’t pass up the chance of using Teddy’s presumption he could interrupt a Cabinet meeting without giving him a little humiliation. “Shall we have him up and have a little fun with him?”
In a sarcastic tone, with his Cabinet members chuckling under their white beards and mustaches the President sneering asked, “What would you advise under the circumstances?”
Unsmiling, the wild-eyed Roosevelt bared his teeth and yelled, “I would send out a fleet and smash them!” As reporter Arthur Wallace Dunn observed, “And then McKinley and his wise men discovered that this was not an individual to have fun with over a grave matter.”
Roosevelt finally seized what control he had, if even for the sake of publicity, Taking advantage of the Navy Secretary again being out of town, he sent a dramatic telegram, cabling the order for U.S. battleships to head for the Philippines.
Still feeling that war was a mistake but an inevitability, McKinley submitted a declaration of war with Spain to Congress, which was quickly approved. And, Mack further authorized four U.S. Army cavalry units to go to Cuba, giving Roosevelt the post of lieutenant colonel, with Wood as colonel, of what became the famous Rough Riders.
Teddy finally got to march down to Brooks Brothers in New York and fit himself up into a hand-tailored uniform. Self-consciousness was part of his every move, even requesting that the uniform not include a collar with the yellow – the color associated with cowardice.
After dressing up in his new duds in New York, Roosevelt went to a photography studio and struck various gallant poses – before even seeing one bullet, later making certain that copies would be distributed to the press.
Fighting to have a train authorized to bring his Rough Riders from training camp in Texas to Florida, where ships were transporting U.S. troops to Cuba, fighting to get onto the first one to land on Cuban shores, and fighting to be the first American whose foot touched the sand of the island, Roosevelt could not be stopped.
Only four months after leading the famous charge on San Juan Hill In July of 1898 and helping to quickly break Spanish defenses in Cuba, Roosevelt went on to get elected Governor of New York. While the peace treaty was signed in February of 1899, however, the U.S. found itself embroiled in a far worse conflict, the un-anticipated resistance to U.S. control of the Asian islands once controlled by Spain. The rarely-mentioned American-Filipino War was far longer and bloodier than the Spanish-American War.
While public support for McKinley’s new war waned, Roosevelt calculated that his own support for McKinley was now a good thing. He suddenly began to pontificate on “the duty of every man” to support McKinley for a second term so the American-Filipino War could end: “We must smash out this insurrection there by force of arms and then we can consider terms of peace.” Suddenly, the “jellyfish” became “the bravest American of our times, certainly since the days of Lincoln!”
Sudden love for Mack the Warrior, however, might not have been his sole motive, for Roosevelt had further ambitions.
Rumors that Hobart was having more than serious heart trouble broke in April of 1899, but McKinley’s campaign manager and friend Mark Hanna declared, “nothing but death or an earthquake can stop the re-nomination of Vice President Hobart” In August, Governor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to ostensibly see the President, vacationing in New York State, but knowing that Hobart was there with him. After the tactical visit, it was obvious to Roosevelt that Hobart would last long. He died three months later.
If the healthy, young and popular Governor Roosevelt now seemed a shoe-in for the vice-presidential nomination, not everyone around McKinley was quite so enthusiastic about the pairing. “Only a madman would separate you from that damned cowboy,” the President’s first campaign manager Mark Hanna angrily told him after McKinley took to Teddy. “Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.”
McKinley knew Roosevelt had tremendous leverage with western voters. Despite his advantage, McKinley feared taking any risk of losing re-election, and feared that if he didn’t take Roosevelt, the young Governor could cause some type of trouble.
Hanna was beside himself. He couldn’t for the life of him understand what could possibly make a powerful figure like McKinley seemingly acquiesce to the arrogant upstart he viewed Roosevelt to be. All Hanna could say about McKinley was, “He is blind, or afraid - or something!”
There was no evidence that McKinley, typically methodical in plotting out every possible political scenario before making a move, had second thoughts.
Campaign memorabilia of the 1900 Republican ticket showed Mack and Teddy to be far closer than they were. He spent almost the entire campaign at his home in Canton, Ohio and let Roosevelt go out and do the talking for them.
Oddly, he did not encourage Roosevelt to come confer with him at Canton but once. And then, it was mostly to take press photographs.
One shows them standing both unsmiling and standing on the McKinley front porch. The other posed them in chairs, again at a wide distance, both grim and neither looking at the other, both looking so solitary in their own heads that it suggests a composite image.
Polite to the point of being unctuous, McKinley uncharacteristically fell out of touch with Roosevelt; the President never called the Vice President to confer on matters of state.
The McKinleys made no overtures of friendship as they had with Hobart and his wife. In June of 1901, Roosevelt finally wrote McKinley on the pretext of concern for Mrs. McKinley, “We think of you both (and who does not?) all the time.” In response was only a routine acknowledgement from the President’s secretary.
There was almost a sense that, despite his re-election, McKinley was being eclipsed by larger forces or, as some suggested, that this brilliant actor of a politician had been outwitted, or used. Yet one couldn’t help but see that McKinley was overtaken by youth.
Even at the 1901 Inaugural Ball, the new Vice President’s 16 year old Alice Roosevelt stared at the overweight and stressed President and later said she kept wondering what sort of life insurance policy he could possibly qualify for.
Six months later, on September 6, 1901, McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, while attending the Pan-American Exposition. He lived for several days, but succumbed on September 14.
Later that day, Roosevelt was sworn in as President. He went on to win his own full term, in 1904, serving until 1909.
If Roosevelt sometimes comes off as a man utterly obsessed with his place in history, he had a short tutelage under a President who might have been even more so. Further, if Roosevelt’s seeming obsession with death seemed to motivate him, it hardly surpassed McKinley’s very same yet better-concealed pre-occupation with mortality. Egotism is not a disadvantage in politics, especially at the presidential level.
Perhaps as an answer to that “something” which Mark Hanna could not understand was what led McKinley to seem so passive, McKinley once confided something chilling shortly after Roosevelt had begun his march into history.
“I would prefer,” he said, “to go as Lincoln went.”
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