The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century

  • By Scott Miller
  • Random House
  • 432 pp.

How the Industrial Revolution and political climate of the time caused William McKinley to cross paths with his killer.

In The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, Scott Miller deftly uses the twentieth century’s first presidential assassination as a literary device to paint an engaging, entertaining, and revealing portrait of America at a crucial turning point in its history. In short, this book delivers on its subtitle.

For Miller, William McKinley’s lethal encounter with the handgun belonging to Leon Czolgosz was not merely an unlucky confrontation with a distressed demented laborer. Rather, the shooting grew from the seismic changes occurring as the industrial revolution woke the nation from a bucolic agrarian slumber and transformed it into an economic and military giant that would dominate the world in the new century.

The metamorphosis was hailed as progress by those on top and viewed as a horror for those on the bottom. “For every tycoon smoking cigars wrapped in hundred-dollar bills, for every society woman who strapped a diamond-encrusted collar on her dog, for every playboy who spent the summer sailing Daddy’s yacht, there were tens of thousands of seamstresses, coal miners, and assembly line workers for whom life was simply a battle for existence,” writes Miller.

This seemingly intractable industrial serfdom was fertile soil for radical solutions. Socialism, communism, and anarchism were like siren calls to the oppressed, promising in resonating Christian terms that the downtrodden were the rightful heirs to the richness of the land.

Thus, for a brief time radicals took center stage in American life with mass rallies, strikes, and — at times — bombs and assassinations. Of the three movements, anarchism is now the least understood, yet it may have had the most lasting influence on the nation’s latter conduct. The specter of revolutionary terrorism alarmed a nation secure in its belief of American exceptionalism. The reactions of both society and government established the pattern of red scares that would be repeated time and time again, even now in the aftermath of the attacks by Islamic radicals.

Using a fast-paced narration, Miller recounts how the affable and agreeable McKinley embodied the emerging traits of the Americanism. In fact, McKinley comes off as a sympathetic figure who loved his sickly wife and was generous to a fault. In every way his antagonist, Czolgosz, was the opposite. Lonely, friendless in childhood, he was one of millions whose spirit was crushed by the industrial tyranny and one of thousands drawn to anarchism with its ideals of cooperation, its inspiring vision of an idyllic future, and a militancy that promised to deliver real change unlike the seemingly futile ballot. But Czolgosz’s unstable mind interpreted the rhetoric of change declaimed by the flamboyant anarchist Emma Goldman in such a literal sense that he set off for Buffalo to kill the president.

Following the two paths of these men to their fatal rendezvous, the book brings to life this critically important phase of American economic and political development. Miller has a good eye, trained by years of journalism, for telling details and enriching anecdotes. And, in what can only be described as panoramic tour de force, Miller even manages to portray the nation’s emergence as an imperialistic power without deviating from his gripping tale centered on the two men.

At times, however, Miller overreaches in his portrayal of the clash as a product of American societal forces. He strains to give anarchism English and American roots, which it had. But, for reasons that are not clear, Miller ignores how much the ideology was an import that came with the teeming masses lured here to work the mills. This “alien” ideology made it all the easier to expel and exclude would-be Americans, thereby turning the nation’s back on its political pluralistic founding creed.

Miller is also somewhat over-dependent on secondary sources. One wishes he had mined more letters and diaries. And he makes too frequent use of The New York Times, which in that era was understaffed and fielded the less talented reporters. Lastly, unnecessary speculation in moments where the facts are not known weakens the book’s narrative drive. For instance, in tracing the assassin’s motives, Miller suggests that Czolgosz “likely perused” a radical publication called “Free Society” and “might have flipped through pages.”

But, in the end, any reader interested in the time period and a good story to boot can do no better than pick up The President and the Assassin.

James McGrath Morris is the author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

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