McKinley & Roosevelt: Teddy’s Crack Behind Mack’s Back, Egotism & Death

William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, on McKinley’s Canton, Ohio front porch during the 1900 campaign.

McKinley during he Civil War.

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.

Police Commissioner Roosevelt.

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.

Young “Teedy” as he was called.

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.

McKinley conducted his presidential campaign from his Ohio front porch.

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 strikes a pose.

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.”

The McKinleys spoke of their dead daughters as spirits to the point where their gravesite became a tourist attraction and the subject of souvenirs like this stereo-optic card.

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.

Assistant Navy Secretary Roosevelt in his new office, 1897.

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.”

Cuban peasants herded into detention camps there.

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.

Mrs. McKinley.

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.

Mack enters an open carriage to join a waiting Teddy for a ride, 1901.

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.”

Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

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?”

Presidential insult.

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.

Mack and his Cabinet.

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.”

U.S. Naval battleship, part of the “great white fleet” during the Spanish-American War.

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 posed in the studio after changing into his new uniform – but before actually going to fight.

Roosevelt ordered his uniform from Brooks Brothers – without yellow on the color.

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.

A romanticized painting showing Teddy charging up San Juan Hill on a horse, when in reality they all walked.

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.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roosevelt with his friend, and former McKinley doctor Colonel Leonard Wood in camp.

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!”

Garret Hobart, a dying Vice President.

Sudden love for Mack the Warrior, however, might not have been his sole motive, for Roosevelt had further ambitions.

McKinley was the first President to maintain a close, personal relationship with his Vice President, Garret Hobart and strongly depended on him as a confidante and negotiator.

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.

Mark Hanna, who tried to stop McKinley from choosing Roosevelt as his new Vice President.

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.

1900 campaign poster for Mack and Teddy.

Mack & Teddy, closer on a button than in life.

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.

McKinley & Roosevelt : serving together.

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.

McKinley-Roosevelt Inaugural Ball program.

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.

Mack assassinated.

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.”

Theodore Roosevelt taking the oath of office as President following McKinley’s 1901 assassination.


Categories: History, Politics, Presidents, Presidents on Presidents, Presidents Together

Tags: , , , , , , ,

19 replies »

  1. What a brilliantly written piece. I am looking forward to the release of your Ida McKinley biography!

    TR, however, bigger-than-life, often comes off as less than a nice person. He is a little like Churchill in that way. Curiously, they once met and TR did not like the younger man, finding him to be an egotist!

    Karl Marx wrote of Lincoln that he was the rarest of men because he was both great and good. Can the same be said of TR? I find that his blood lust (with regard to both men and animals) was disgusting. Yet, still, a great man.

    • Interesting because I just wrote a similar reaction to another comment for this story. I think all Presidents – Obama, Bush, Clinton, even the one I find perhaps the most appealing as both a human and a President (Eisenhower) to be outrageous egotists. Those never intending to be President – Ford, Truman, Coolidge – they tend not to be as egotistical. And yet some with less ego – Taft, Harding, Bush I – tend not to have been considered among the “great” Presidents, so it may be that it is a necessity to be entirely compelled by one’s vision and spend a lifetime convincing others that its the only way to think. Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I had never heard that quote about Lincoln, but I think there is truth to it. And I better not get into Churchill territory since I have only an everyman’s sense of the arc to his life.

      • Thank you so much. Churchill seems to have been wrong on everything (Gallipoli, India/Gandhi, colonialism in general) but absolutely right in what mattered most–to stop Hitler and later to contain Stalin. A case in which the principal achievements are so monumental that to mention his disastrous mistakes would be almost to cavil. I don’t think that there is someone like him in our history, perhaps Jackson.

        • Oh Jackson – don’t get me started. But I think that what was true for him is true for all Presidents – including Theodore Roosevelt. So many who held destructive and bigoted views and even those who acted upon them also had great, large visions – they got the big picture and had the capacity to overcome their own personal limitations and small attitudes to strive for the greater good. Yet again reminding us all of lesson one on humans – not one is perfect.

  2. Your mention of McKinley’s formality and theatricality reminds me of a recording I’ve heard of McKinley giving a speech. He had that (faux?) upper-crust Eastern patrician accent one so perplexingly hears in films of the 30’s and 40’s when society people are depicted, a practice equally perplexingly discontinued by Hollywood after WWII. Surely no one, least of all someone from Ohio, every really spoke that way? Your concluding thought is fascinating to consider. My favorite line here is Mark Hanna’s: “Only a madman would separate you from that damned cowboy.”

    • Haha – I know that accent. Didn’t the society dame with the Marx Brothers really epitomize it. In a funny way, I wish it was still around. But I also think that sometimes it was less a matter of race, faith and regionality than it was socio-economic classes that led people to conform in how they expressed themselves – or where they were educated – most apparently in the sound of their voices. Thanks for an interesting observation on the story.

      • I think FDR is especially interesting to listen to. And yes, that Marx brothers society matron was perfect. WC Fields had some great foils for his verbal antics too.

        • In his case, I do think that there was a definitive New York accent, which passed to several generations and is now all but faded. My father has a slight accent I can pick up on every now and then. I think (I don’t know) it was perhaps shaped by the Styvesant School he went to in Manhattan. It’s very slight, but it is different from my mother’s and they are contemporaries. I think that FDR and Eleanor had a more natural speaking voice rather than a put-on.

      • I think that the accent is called “Received Pronounciation” which became the British upper class way of speaking beginning in the 20th century, it caught on in the Eastern U.S with the social elite, so that it is why Eleanor Roosevelt ended up sounding like the Queen Mother. Before then, there was a multiplicity of English accents and the royal family up to Victoria’s time spoke with a slightly German-inflected English. Rececently, “The Telegraph” did a study as to how Shakespeare’s works would have sounded in his time. The conclusion was that the Elizabethans spoke with what would sound to us as an Irish brogue. How they figured that our, I have not a clue.

        I love Margaret Dumont. She was the best thing that ever happened to Groucho, I love the scene in “A Night at the Opera” where he is dragging all her luggage onto a ship and she turns around and on the gang plank and asks, Do you have everything?” And he responds, “I haven’t got any complaints yet.”

  3. Just an errorto point out. McKinley was shot on Sept 6 not Sept 9

    • Many thanks, will correct – by the time I got down to the last few sentences it was after 5am, so I tried to rely on memory alone.

      • Perfectly understandable. When I was 11 years old (1967), my father ran an antique store and an elderly gentleman (close to 90 years of age) came in. They struck up a conversation, and the gentleman told my dather that he had been an eyewitness to the McKinley assassination. My father raced home, picked me up, and I heard the gentleman’s first hand account of that day in Buffalo. You would have thought someone had given me an autographed baseball by Mickey Mantle. It was a moment I will never forget.

        • Wow….I love that story. Amazing – and time just keeps marching on and on and along the way. I so often will stare at pictures in old newspapers while doing research and pause when there’s a large crowd image – and wonder if anyone in it is still, possibly alive. Thanks for writing that story.

  4. I’ve admired your even-handed ability to write of historical figures who are icons of the right or the left without indicating a personal preference. I sense in this post that TR may not be one of your favorite presidents.

    • I think he was one of the greatest and most important of Presidents – and one who defined one of my most favorite eras. Among my top list – but as a human being I found him cold-blooded to the point of emotionally unstable. I think very much about his refusal or inability to ever even acknowledge to his first daughter the existence of his first wife, her mother to be chilling. And this obsession with killing and war seemed antithetical to the very idea of a civilization progressing. He also wrote some views – which are no longer easily found except for some intensive research – about the disabled, which are shocking, especially in light of his father having found Roosevelt Hospital in New York, which provided medical care for many of the city’s most indigent and those with disabilities who had been abandoned by their families. He also had some sharp views towards Catholics, and certain European-descended Americans who married and had children with Native Americans which echo views expressed by leaders of Germany’s Third Reich. Those are just some reasons I do not find him approachable as a human – despite finding him fantastic as a President.

  5. Danish influence in Southern California speech? That is really fascinating. Also what you said, Carl, about your father and the Stuyvesant School. My father, too, has a slightly different accent from my mother’s, though both are Californians. I have often thought this is because his family lived for many generations along the Hudson, near Rhinebeck and Kingston and in Onondaga County, before coming west. But who knows? Yes, I too think that FDR and Eleanor had natural accents. The Hollywood upper crust speech I think was really an affectation to indicate ‘high society’ people, but that no one ever really spoke that way in the United States. It’s an interesting topic.


  1. When Three Presidents Ran Against Each Other & A Whiskey Jingle Won the Election « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic Americana, Holidays, Legends, Pie & Dogs
  2. The First President Captured on Film: McKinley’s 1896 Campaign Song & Commercial « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic Americana, Holidays, Legends, Pie & Dogs
  3. President McKinley’s Dream | The Road
  4. A Dream about Donald Trump | The Road
%d bloggers like this: