‘Supporting’ McKinley

‘Supporting’ McKinley

This essay, from the October 18, 1900, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on presidential politics, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


Everybody must have noticed how the men who come forward to announce their determination to vote for McKinley, do so with an apologetic air. They usually begin by saying that they hope no one will suppose that he is their “first choice,” or that they think him, per se, fit for the Presidency. This is especially the case with those who speak as representatives of the intelligent classes. To save their own reputation for intelligence, they have to include in their “support” of McKinley an amount of personal and political condemnation of their candidate which would seem positively insulting to a less meek man than he. “Understand,” they say, “we know as well as you do that his convictions are made up for him as regularly as his bed is; that he can turn himself inside out or upside down at the word of command; that his Administration has been marred by frightful mistakes–and still, on the whole, we mean to vote for him. He is the lesser evil.”

Yet so low is the Republican estate that the party managers hail such accessions with rapture. These left-handed compliments they seize upon delightedly as proof that the party has not, after all, driven away all intelligence or affronted every conscience. “See,” they gleefully exclaim, “Mr. Ottendorfer is with us. To be sure, he says McKinley is a vermicular man, who ought never to have been thought of for the Presidency, and whose Administration has been a wretched failure. Mr. Ottendorfer may not vote for him, but, anyhow, he is against Bryan. What a triumph that is for our candidate!” They even pounce with joy upon the pronouncement of the Rev. Dr. Bacon against Bryan, although in the very same letter he said of McKinley: “We cannot tell where to find him in any future emergency, but may calculate, with much probability, on finding him in contradiction to his avowed principles.” And this is called “supporting” a man for the Presidency!

The truth is, there has seldom been a candidate for President whose personality was such a drag upon his canvass. The veriest idolaters and myth-makers cannot picture McKinley as a hero or a leader. He is running for office purely on the badness of his opponent. Ask frank Republicans their opinion of the outcome if it were Cleveland against McKinley. They will admit that their man would be nowhere. Far from kindling enthusiasm and carrying a cause with him in inspiring leadership, he calls for apologies instead of for cheers, and is a dead weight upon the cause–the gold standard–which has to carry him. This is an awful break with our Presidential traditions. Personality has notoriously always counted for much with Americans. They like to swear by names rather than measures. They often make a popular hero out of the most refractory material. Four years ago many of them persuaded themselves that they could see an heroic feature or two in McKinley. But they have given it up now. They will take him, if they do at all, shudderingly, and as a forced but dreaded alternative.

Gov. Roosevelt, on his return to this State, will be expected to “bring words of cheer from the great West,” where he has been campaigning. If he were to give a truthful impression of the figure which McKinley is actually cutting in the canvass, his report would be some thing like this:

“I am glad to be able to assure you, Republicans of New York, that the Lesser Evil is running like wild-fire over the prairies. In the most intelligent circles, I found an earnest conviction that McKinley is not quite so had as Bryan. And the plain people are equally enthusiastic about our peerless leader. One monster parade, which I reviewed, bore a McKinley banner in which was inscribed the inspiring words, ‘Our Medicine We hate it, but we are going to take it. ‘ In Chicago the vast audience which packed the Auditorium was thrilled when a picture of McKinley was unveiled, underneath which was written, ‘The Nation’s Choice–of evils ‘ And I assure you, fellow-Republicans, that even I have seldom roused such frantic applause as I did in St. Louis when I called for three cheers for McKinley, and added the sentiment, ‘We love him for the blunders he has made!’ ”

We would not be thought to jest about what is really a very serious matter. Inability to respect a candidate for its highest office is little short of a disaster for a democracy. It often suffers strange delusions about public men, falls down before images with feet of clay, and all that; but that is better than the political dejection which comes from the general conviction that voting is reduced to a balancing of dangers, and a choice between two unworthy personalities. “Vote as you shot,” used to be the shibboleth. “Vote as you pray,” was another. This year the watchword is, “Vote as you take medicine ” That is not a healthful or hopeful state of a democratic body politic. Casting a ballot in the spirit in which you would get a prescription filled, is a poor substitute for the old proud way of “executing a freeman’s will.” It will not be an inspiring sight on election day–the number of good citizens who will be seen coming from the polls with pain and illness written on their faces, and who will explain their melancholy and distress by saying that they had been voting for McKinley.

One compensating feature of this campaign of the lesser evil is that even McKinley himself, on reading the terrible things said of him by his supporters, must begin to be aware that something is wrong. People have talked a good deal about “punishing” McKinley. Some have said that they mean to vote solely to punish him. But his punishment has already begun. To a man as vain as he is, it must sometimes seem a punishment greater than he can bear. His own idea of the campaign was that it was to be one long laudation of his person. He sent on from Washington to Philadelphia a platform pitched in a key of the grossest adulation of his noble self. First he had the mortification of seeing his own party’s stomach unable to stand that dose. His self-praise was ruthlessly cut out of the platform. Then he has seen his personality steadily retire into the background, until his name has come to be mentioned with apologies which are themselves cutting indictments, and the Rupert he thought himself has been reduced to the humiliating role of the Lesser Evil. His only hope of election lies in the fact that people, echoing Candide’s famous cry about the best of worlds, will exclaim in horror, “If McKinley is the Lesser Evil, what must Bryan be!”

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