With his newest book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, Karl Rove has taken the past, in this case a past Presidential election of 120 years ago, and with insight as a political strategist and operative, demonstrated how that election, the election of 1896, has impacted American Political history from then to this day.
The result is a detailed and engaging study of how McKinley, considered by the GOP political bosses of that day to be a non-entity in the 1896 race built an organization in the year running up to the election and used it to gain control of the GOP and then the convention itself, and during the campaign made the risky decision to reach out to new voting blocks of Catholic, African-American, and new immigrants thus expanding the base of the GOP.
While the first six chapters, chronicling McKinley’s life and early political endeavors, are helpful they set the background for the heart of the book which begins with chapter 7, The Major’s War Plan, in which the themes of unity and discipline are sketched out that formed the basis of McKinley’s successful campaign. From there Rove sketches in detail the personalities of that campaign, the very divisive issue between gold backed and silver backed currency issue and its impact on the two major parties, the decisions of both McKinley and Bryan as to tactics used (Bryan’s exhausting campaign across the country and McKinley’s legendary “front porch” campaign) and the campaign itself between the charismatic and mercurial William Jennings Bryan and the steady William McKinley. In the final chapter, McKinley’s Triumph, Rove suggests eight reasons McKinley won the election.
“…he conducted a campaign based on big issues, namely sound money and protection.”
(McKinley believed in sound money and thus leaned toward maintaining the Gold standard)
McKinley “after hemming and hawing…took on his opponent’s supposed strength-Bryan’s advocacy of Free Silver.”
“…he was a different kind of Republican who recognized his party must broaden and modernize its appeal or it would lose.”
“…he broadened the electoral battlefield” because “McKinley and his managers understood the election would be fought in more states and among more voters than in past elections…”
“…he ran for the nomination as an outsider, undercutting the traditional role played by the party bosses in settling the nomination by deals at the convention itself… he refused to be bound by the practices that elevated party bosses…”
“…he was seen as a candidate of change…”
“He ran as a unifier, adopting the language of national reconciliation… McKinley understood that Americans thirsted for someone who could replace discord and rancor with optimism and unity.”
Noting that “a campaign organization must complete three tasks: maximize turn-out among the party’s traditional followers, target and persuade swing or non-voters, and push its message in the face of an opponent’s attacks, ” Rove notes that “McKinley won by accomplishing these tasks” and that “this was the eighth and most important reason for McKinley’s victory: the quality of a candidate’s campaign makes a critical difference…”
The Triumph of William McKinley is a great piece of and on American political history. In my very amateur opinion, Rove does a very good job taking the reader on a journey back in time to an election that, either direction, would shape America’s entry into the 20th century.
If you are looking for a book about McKinley and a further study of his life and his Presidency, then this is not the book for you. Rove has several suggestions in his bibliography about some of those books (and I read the late Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography In the Days of McKinley several years ago).
But if you are looking for an insightful read of an election in a time of American life that has some similarities (notably a divided society in need of unity) today’s society, then this book is a worthy read. I liked it for its thoughtful detail and its insights into the American political process.
My Goodreads’ rating is 4 star.
Note: this book was given to me as a gift and I chose to write a review of it.