President McKinley!

President McKinley!

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“People ask me if I want to say a little bit about the book, and the answer is no. But I will, because it seems appropriate,” said author Bob Merry. “I didn’t come up with this idea. I actually came up with a different idea. I wanted to write a book about the 1850s, which is a passion of mine, and the breakdown of American politics and how it broke down to such an extent that it wasn’t possible to put it back together except through war. It was basically a breakdown of the constitutional system and the politics of that and I wanted to do it through the prism of two states that were sort of driving us to war – South Carolina and Massachusetts. I think they’re both crazy states in a lot of ways on different ends of the spectrum, and I got a contract. It was a nice contract to do that, but they talked me into writing a  book on the presidency of William McKinley,” explained Merry at a book party in his honor at the home of John & Johanna Derlega, his daughter. He ended up writing: President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

Bob Merry

“We are here tonight to celebrate my dad’s life’s work and, of course, that includes a biography of McKinley that was called ‘measured and insightful’ by The New York Times, so hooray for that. But his other life’s work is the friendships that he made when he was in DC for 40+ years, and we’re so glad that most of those are here tonight for him,” said Johanna. Because of the holidays, she wasn’t sure anyone would show up, but who wouldn’t show up for Bob Merry, one of Washington’s media elite. “It’s truly breathtaking to see all of the people that I have grown to know and love over the years and who have supported my father in friendship and support, as well as my mother. He said himself it was certainly a difficult toil at times. Thank you so much on behalf of obviously me and my husband, John, who mostly spent the time cooking in the kitchen.” Thank you John!

Johanna Merry Derlega, Publisher of The Hill, with her dad Bob Merry

About the book: In this great American story, acclaimed historian Robert Merry resurrects the presidential reputation of William McKinley, which loses out to the brilliant and flamboyant Theodore Roosevelt who succeeded him after his assassination. He portrays McKinley as a chief executive of consequence whose low place in the presidential rankings does not reflect his enduring accomplishments and the stamp he put on the country’s future role in the world. Republican President William McKinley in his two terms as president (1897 – 1901) transformed America. He established the US as an imperial power. Although he does not register large in either public memory or in historians’ rankings, in this revealing account, Robert W. Merry unfolds the mystery of how this bland man managed so much powerful change. McKinley settled decades of monetary controversy by taking the country to a strict gold standard; in the Spanish-American war he kicked Spain out of the Caribbean and liberated Cuba from Spain; in the Pacific he acquired Hawaii and the Philippines through war and diplomacy; he developed the doctrine of “fair trade”; forced the “Open Door” to China; forged our “special relationship” with Great Britain. In short, he established the non-colonial imperialism that took America into global preeminence. He expanded executive power and managed public opinion through his quiet manipulation of the press. McKinley paved the way for the bold and flamboyant leadership of his famous successor, Teddy Roosevelt, who built on his accomplishments (and got credit for them).  Merry writes movingly about McKinley’s admirable personal life, from his simple Midwestern upbringing to his Civil War heroism to his brave comportment just moments before his death by assassination (it was only six months into his second term when he was shot). Lively, definitive, and eye-opening, President McKinley resurrects this overlooked president and places him squarely on the list of one of the most important. Synopsis courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

“Sue and I have had some wonderful book parties, including put on by some people in this room (thank you) and we really appreciate that,” said Merry.  I sometimes come back and forth, as all of you know, between the two Washingtons. Sometimes I refer to it as the good Washington and the bad Washington, and you can decide which is which. But I’ve also said, and I’ve said it for many, many decades really that I get my serenity out in the other Washington and I’ve gotten my excitement here, and I’ve gotten my excitement with so many of you, either on my side, sometimes competing, dinner parties, at lunches and events, at news events, and those 40 years … it’s almost 45 now I think, since I’m sort of back and forth … have been just a wonderful, wonderful life and largely because of all of you and many, many other friends along the way.”  The CQ (Congressional Quarterly) folks happily showed up.  Merry was the force behind the successful publication for years prior to its sale to The Economist.

John Jenkins, Keith White, Maura Mahoney, David Rapp and Bob Merry – The CQ crowd.

Merry thought about the McKinley book for about a year:  “This is the dumbest decision I ever made,” said Merry when he first anticipated having to write it. “William McKinley is an obscure character. He is a really nice guy. I’m not sure. I remember reading about him when he was running for president and someone piped up a question and said, ‘Congressman, are you enough of a son of a bitch to be president?’  McKinley wasn’t a son of a bitch at all, and so the question was, ‘Well, who was he?’ He was obscure. He didn’t write letters. He didn’t write a memoir. He didn’t reveal himself much.”  Apparently, when David Ignatius of The Washington Post read the manuscript he said: “You know Bob, I think you’ve got to look at this guy as a mystery, because all of this stuff happened and we know it happened in his presidency: We became an empire. We got Hawaii, a big special relationship with Britain, Panama Canal, all this big Navy. He didn’t initiate all of it, but he pushed it all along. Gold standard … forget the gold standard, they kind of washed over him. He didn’t really have anything to do with it. He was like a leaf in the wind. The mystery was, well wait a minute, how did all of this stuff happen when he was president if he didn’t do something about it?”

“The more I began to study him, the more I began to realize how he operated by indirection and how he manipulated people to do what he wanted them to do while thinking it was their idea, and he was brilliant at it,” Merry concluded. “As soon as I began to get that sense, which I didn’t really have until the mystery concept was injected into my consciousness by Ignatius and I am very, very appreciative of that. The Wall Street Journal book review’s headline was ‘The McKinley Mystery,’ so absolutely brilliant. But what I figured out was that you can dramatize this guy if you can understand what he was trying to do, and he always managed to get his way. Elihu Root, his War Secretary, said:  ‘McKinley always managed to get people to do what he wanted them to do and he always got his way because he didn’t care who took the credit.'”  We love mysteries, so yes – we took home the book.