Quick, what year was William McKinley elected to the presidency?
For those who are not history buffs, the answer is 1897 — a time of great cultural upheaval for the United States.
As veteran journalist Scott Miller chronicles in his new book, The President and the Assassin, the country’s transition from an agrarian society to an imperialistic and industrial one brought two surprisingly parallel lives — President McKinley and Leon Czolgosz, a wayward Polish immigrant — to a dramatic standstill when Czolgosz fired two deadly bullets at McKinley at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.
Q: What inspired you to write The President and the Assassin?What stood out to you about McKinley versus any other president who’s been assassinated?
I was interested for some time in doing a book about this period in American history. It was really kind of a dividing line in our history. Before then it was an America that the Founding Fathers would have recognized. After that, it was an America that we recognize today. Before this period, it was an America that was largely agrarian, and people made their living through craftsmanship-type jobs. After that, it was the development of large companies and economies of scale. I was interested in how it came about in a fairly short period of time. So I wasn’t looking for a story about a president who was assassinated, I was looking for a story that would illustrate how this process took place. I didn’t want to write an academic sort of book; I wanted to write a really good story. So I became interested in McKinley — obviously, he has a very dramatic conclusion to his life — and I was looking into the assassin, and I thought, maybe this could be an interesting story, toggling back and forth between the life of McKinley and the life of his assassin. And as I did more research and found out some more about the assassin … I realized there could be a compelling story telling two parallel lives that these two characters led.
Q: So your idea for the book was originally more about the time period than the actual characters themselves?
That’s how it started out. Then I really became interested in the characters. Both of them are very enigmatic. Partially because he was assassinated, McKinley didn’t write memoirs. His wife never wrote anything, and his children died when they were quite young, so there was no record from them. There’s been a lot of historical debate about McKinley and what kind of president he was. Also his words and his actions didn’t always necessarily match up, making it harder to figure him out. I was also interested in him because I think he’s probably been overshadowed, possibly unfairly, by his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt, who of course is probably one of the most beloved and charismatic presidents we’ve ever had.
Q: What other historical lessons do you think people should take from this story?
One thing that is really interesting to me about McKinley is that he was benignly a good guy: He was the sort of guy you’d like to have as your friend, and meant to do well. He was not interested in foreign affairs particularly ... and he was drawn into it against his will. I think he was looking for a quiet presidency ... and then there happened to be a problem with the Spanish in Cuba. … I would say that McKinley’s presidency is in some ways a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to make baby steps into foreign affairs and how things can so easily get out of control.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned as you researched this book?
It was probably the other characters, and how interesting this country was at this period. It wasn’t just focused on Czolgosz and McKinley; it was the wealth of other characters that populated the country. Like Adm. Dewey, who led the American attack in Manila, was essentially a desk-bound Naval officer and finally got his big chance and was determined to make the most of it. Or Emma Goldman, one of the leading anarchists. You know, this is one of the things I really like about history: To me, it’s always more interesting than fiction, because it actually happened. You always say, “You can’t make it up better than this.” That was one of the things that surprised me and that I really enjoyed about the whole process.