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Walter LaFeber : McKinley's Manipulative Power
Walter LaFeber There is the, story about the Massachusetts senator who went in to see McKinley to ask for a favor, which McKinley was not going to give, and McKinley knew what he was going to be asked to give. So McKinley, first of all, inquired about the man's family and especially about his wife who'd been ill. Then McKinley reached into his button hole and gave him his own flower that he had been wearing that day and then, according to the story, McKinley began to weep as he told this man that he would really liked to have helped him, but it was just impossible at this time. And the man turned to McKinley and said, "That's all right. I would rather have this flower than what I came in to ask you for anyway." And then he went out and apparently said to somebody in the office that "There is nothing that man would ask me to do that I would refuse." McKinley had this effect on people and he had this effect, as I say, not by being rough or overbearing, but by being incredibly sensitive and in a sense playing on people's sensitivities and with good manners, appealing to their best side. And they came out of their discussions with McKinley feeling good. They felt that even though McKinley'd gotten his way, as he invariably did, that this was the right way to do it.

Another side of McKinley is that he was just very, very smart and he knew how to use words and he knew how to manipulate words in the press. There is the story of McKinley and Elihu Root, his Secretary of War arguing over how to write a particular diplomatic dispatch. And so they agreed that they would go off into their own offices and write the dispatch. Root, who was arguably the best corporate lawyer of the day, a man who was extremely able and knew how to use words, took an hour-and-half to write this version of this diplomatic dispatch. McKinley dictated his in 15 minutes and in the end, the cabinet used McKinley's version, which I think tells us a good deal about how McKinley, for all of his restraint and his modesty could use words and knew how to get what he wanted.

McKinley is a very 20th century President in terms of his use of power, his ability to control Congress, his ability to manipulate the press. One of the shrewdest observers at the Washington scene at this time was the historian Henry Adams who lived right across from the White House and Adams noted that, as Adams later put it, McKinley surrounded himself with manipulators and then he manipulated the manipulators. McKinley was very good in setting up all of the powers of the imperial Presidency without the trappings of it, without anyone really knowing exactly what he was doing. One good example of this, I think, is when he decided that the news coming back from the "Philippine Insurrection", against the United States in 1899 and 1900 was too brutal and too discouraging for the American people really to hear. And so he censored this news and Americans in 1899 and 1900 could not really find out what was going on in the Philippines, but McKinley was doing this and McKinley got away scott free with this while the military officers were blamed by the press for censoring the news. McKinley would do this over and over again. He did not care who got credit for any particular accomplishment as long as he got what he wanted and he invariably did.

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