May 13, 2011

The colliding fates of two very different men

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William McKinley and Leon Czolgosz lived in the same country but had virtually nothing else in common. As a member of the House of Representatives, McKinley had been a prime mover of tariff and other pro-business legislation; as president, he would push to transform the United States into a major economic, diplomatic and, reluctantly, military power. What to McKinley was the country’s expansion and progress, however, depended on the toil of masses of low-skilled and poorly paid workers like Czolgosz, who saw a few men making great fortunes at the expense of people like himself. For some of them, violence appeared to be the only way out of their misery. Scott Miller vividly recreates the history of circumstances that brought these two men together in The President and the Assassin.

Miller deftly weaves a complex tale, moving back and forth between the lives of the president and of the disillusioned man who sought to do harm to the person who seemed to him to symbolize the nation’s many injustices. Among others who figure prominently in events are Theodore Roosevelt, the anarchist leader Emma Goldman and Commodore George Dewey, the hero of the U.S. victory at Manila Bay. Miller covers much ground with skill and nuance, demonstrating that events could have turned out differently with only one or two changes. He shows the pressure that the affable and pragmatic McKinley was under to declare war with Spain, reflecting the country’s ambiguity about becoming an imperial power. He was keenly aware of the great economic potential for the country, and yet, as a veteran of the Civil War, he made it clear that he did not want the country to engage in wars of conquest or territorial aggression. “Peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency,” he said.

Although Czolgosz had been interested in social revolution for years, he said he was especially inspired to pursue the life of a radical revolutionary by a certain speech of Emma Goldman’s, who said it was understandable that some people might feel so strongly that they would resort to violence. But she also said that anarchists were opposed to bloodshed in order to realize their goals, and Miller points out that the majority of the anarchists in the United States opposed bombings and assassinations.

Miller, a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, spent nearly two decades in Asia and Europe and has reported from more than 25 countries. This is his first book, and its broad sweep—foreign policy, social conditions, McKinley’s concern for his frequently ill wife, the true story of Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill and much more—is presented in a wonderfully readable way. The President and the Assassin is a real triumph.

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