Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Eleanor Roosevelt Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Reference
Interview Transcripts | Bibliography | Primary Sources

Walter LaFeber : President William McKinley
Walter LaFeber McKinley, I think, of all American Presidents, best fits the description of an iron hand in a velvet glove. He is a person of impeccable manners, a person who was known and beloved for his restraint, his politeness, his manners. Americans knew, for example, that his wife was an invalid, who was susceptible to seizures, and McKinley would take her to state dinners and when she would have a seizure, he'd very quickly put a napkin over her face and he personally would wheel her out and take her, to the White House bedroom and make sure that she was comfortable. The American people knew that this relationship with Mrs. McKinley had essentially been based on the rather tragic loss of two infant daughters. So McKinley was seen as a person who was sensitive, generous, concerned about others. He was a person who, when he spoke, unlike politicians in the 1890s or later, was not bombastic. He was not a person who raised his voice and shouted. He didn't use excesses of rhetoric. What he did, instead, was to try to use reason. He was a very calm speaker. One of my favorite descriptions of McKinley speaking is, a senator who went over to hear in the House when McKinley was in the House of Representatives and said that McKinley was a very persuasive speaker, that he had a voice that was bell like with a hint of a thrill. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but what I think it does mean is that he was able to get people's attention and he did it not by yelling at them, but by reasoning with them and by cajoling them and by flattering them. He was exceptionally good at this. His Secretary of War, Elihu Root, once said that McKinley's genius was that he could make other people believe that his ideas were their own, and that he was able to work on these people, usually indirectly, until, as, I think Root put it very nicely, "all of the fruit on the tree was his."

McKinley always got what he wanted. He suffered very few political, set-backs, especially after he became President. And he did this in a way that was not public, that was not, bombastic. It was a particular mannerism and style that I think was peculiarly 19th century, and yet he did get what he wanted. He is, I think, the person who started the modern American Presidency. He is the person who, for example, figured out how to use the commander-in-chief powers in the American Constitution so that he could just do about anything he wanted to do with the US military and the US navy. He sent American troops almost literally half-way around the world without consulting anyone except a few close advisors. He certainly never consulted with Congress before he sent US troops of the mainland of Asia. And yet very few people complained about this. He was able to deal with people in way that they came away feeling good even when they disagreed with him.

back to Interview Transcripts

Interview Transcripts | Primary Sources | Bibliography

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Feature | Timeline | Maps | People & Events| Teacher's Guide