Published in 2017, “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century” is Robert Merry’s fifth, and most recent, book. He is a former journalist and executive at the Wall Street Journal, Congressional Quarterly and The National Interest. In 2009 he wrote a biography of James Polk and is well-known for his 2012 assessment of the presidents: “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”
For the most part, William McKinley is a faceless, forgotten former president whose memory is overshadowed by his successor – the ebullient and outspoken Teddy Roosevelt. Merry seeks to elevate McKinley’s historical standing through a systematic recollection and review of his fifty-four-month presidency which was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in the early months of his second term.
But Merry is hardly the first biographer to undertake a rehabilitation of McKinley’s legacy. Margaret Leech (in her Pulitzer Prize winning 1959 biography) and H. Wayne Morgan (in his excellent 1963 biography) each argued McKinley was a potent president whose steady hand guided America’s transition into the 20th century. This far more recent biography by Merry seems as much an effort to remember McKinley as to rescue his image.
The resulting 488-page narrative proves to be a straightforward “no frills” exploration of McKinley’s life. And despite the author’s insistence that history has short-changed McKinley, this biography is both nicely balanced and remarkably convincing. It is difficult to walk away from this book without believing the 25th president was far more consequential than remembered.
Unfortunately, like every biography of McKinley I’ve read, there is disappointingly little insight into his early life. The paragraph announcing the future president’s birth ages him by nine years in just a few sentences. And just four more pages are required to sweep McKinley into the U.S. Army at the age of eighteen.
Merry’s writing style is occasionally euphonic and enticing…but more frequently it is candid and matter-of-fact. Much like McKinley himself, this biography is serious, methodical and often unexciting. And with a few exceptions (such as the tariff and currency issues) relatively little space is devoted to background or context; readers unfamiliar with the global challenges of the era may periodically feel lost.
More disappointing is that readers never get to know important supporting characters such as Elihu Root and John Hay particularly well. One might expect notable public figures to receive robust introductions and ongoing attention. But with the exception of Mark Hanna they do not. Even the seemingly irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt is uncharacteristically subdued.
Finally, the matter of McKinley’s death is dispatched with surprising brevity; just one page is devoted to his assassin’s life, motives, mental state, and preparation. Readers interested in learning more about Leon Czolgosz’s tragic encounter with McKinley may wish to peruse Scott Miller’s wonderfully engaging “The President and the Assassin.”
Overall, Robert Merry’s biography of William McKinley is a solid but unexceptional review and revaluation of the life of a generally overlooked president. Given his importance to America’s midlife transition, McKinley undoubtedly deserves a biography which combines the best of Leech’s writing with the captivating clarity of Morgan’s analysis. But until that book is written, this is likely to be the “go to” biography of McKinley for most modern readers.
Overall Rating: 3½ stars