The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


William McKinley and Us

Eric Rauchwaya1

a1 University of California, Davis

In the presidential campaign of 2004, George W. Bush's advisor Karl Rove repeated to journalists his long-standing explanation of why he admires William McKinley and expects Bush to reproduce what Rove regards as McKinley's successes. In 2003, Kevin Phillips, a Bush critic, wrote a book explaining how much he also admires McKinley. Eric Schlosser, a muck-raking journalist, saw his play Americans debut in London in the fall of 2003 to a theater full of Britons drawn to a play about the assassination of McKinley. Schlosser explains his interest in McKinley by invoking William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn't even past.” By saying so he raises anew the old question of how much our interest in present events ought to inflect our study of the past, but he also raises a question of peculiar interest to historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The McKinley of Rove, Phillips, and Schlosser—the McKinley whom Rove wants the President to emulate—may sound dimly familiar to us. But does the work of professional historians sustain this gloss on current affairs?

Eric Rauchway, author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America (2003, available in paperback from FSG/Hill and Wang) and The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920 (2001, available in paperback from Columbia University Press), is associate professor of history at University of California, Davis.