Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN by Scott Miller (2011, Random House)

The most remarkable thing about Miller's eminently readable discussion of the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 is how little attention is paid to the deed itself. Miller is about more here than a "tick-tock" retelling of a sad event in American history; he places the assassination squarely in context by devoting the majority of the book to a survey of McKinley's highly consequential Presidency, the growth of the anarchist movement in the U.S., and the aimless Czolgosz' gradual absorption by the anarchist subculture. The Haymarket bombings and trial, the Cuban insurrection against Spain, the Spanish-American War, the career of Emma Goldman, and the establishment of an American empire are among the topics covered here, with chapters generally alternating between the McKinley material and the anarchist/Czolgosz matter. Once you get used to the book's structure, the narrative flows reasonably well. In intertwining the McKinley and anarchist threads, Miller in no way argues that Czolgosz -- who, while a shiftless loner, appeared to be eminently sane -- killed McKinley because of opposition to imperialism. However, the juxtaposition of the two stories leads the reader to wonder whether the social inequalities and unrest of the turn of the 20th century, coupled with what the American Left at the time thought was an unseemly grab for worldwide power by government and business working in harmony, provided the necessary spark for Czolgosz' solitary explosion.

I'm pleased to see that Miller resists the temptation to resort to common stereotypes and characterize McKinley as a cipher or a simple puppet of big business. McKinley was definitely in the Calvin Coolidge mold when it came to economics, but he had a distinctive common touch that the taciturn Coolidge generally lacked. His treatment of others -- especially his invalid wife -- was genuinely thoughtful and touching. He was also far from a passive spectator to the Spanish-American War, as some have claimed. As Miller demonstrates, once the pacifistic McKinley decided that the war with Spain needed to be prosecuted, he was willing to go beyond the war's original aims, with the result that America acquired the Philippines and Guam, in addition to carving out a distinctive "sphere of influence" in Cuba. It's not surprising that Americans reacted so vehemently to his death, with citizens of Buffalo (where the assassination took place) seriously threatening to lynch Czolgosz and the government casting a general dragnet for anarchists.

Like THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN, THE PRESIDENT AND THE ASSASSIN is a choppy, but very valuable, window into 19th-century America.

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