Archive for Friday, September 7, 2001

Modern America born from tragedy

September 7, 2001


— A century ago, William McKinley arrived here by train to visit the Pan-American Exposition. Soon after, Leon Czolgosz paid $4.50 at a Main Street store for a .32 revolver. That afternoon, Czolgosz drilled two bullets into the president's chest.

McKinley lingered for days. Theodore Roosevelt, the vice president, left an island on Lake Champlain to attend to McKinley and, satisfied the president was recovering smartly, decamped on an all-night train for the Adirondacks. But when Roosevelt returned from a camping expedition on Mount Marcy, he was met by a runner bearing an urgent message: Get back to the Niagara Frontier, and fast. By the time he arrived, McKinley was dead, and he was the president.

Sometimes presidents are inaugurated in the leisure of a Washington celebration, the oath of office delivered at a carefully choreographed ceremony. But sometimes history occurs on the run. The inaugurations of Jimmy Carter and, four years later, of Ronald Reagan, were important turning points for the nation, marking, respectively, the end of the Watergate tensions and the end of the ethos of big government. But the hurried inaugurations of Theodore Roosevelt and, in more recent times, of Lyndon B. Johnson were far more wrenching emotional moments.

The 100th anniversary of McKinley's death and Roosevelt's ascendancy serves as a reminder of one of history's great truths, which is that the unplanned has far more impact than the planned.

This unplanned diversion on history's road affected us all.

With his fiery temperament, his angular mustache, his intoxicating sense of mission and his impossibly comic sense of destiny, Roosevelt may seem like one of history's inevitable figures to us now. But there was no aura of inevitability surrounding TR when he was chosen to replace Garret Hobart as McKinley's vice president. The New York governor was placed on the ticket mostly to placate New York bosses who had no patience with his reform impulse and wanted him far from Albany.

This was a national turning point. The nation's rhythms and expectations were jolted; the "regular order," as Washington lawmakers call the mind-numbing but comforting routine of life, was disrupted. McKinley had been pious, studious, reflective. Roosevelt was boisterous, rambunctious, impulsive. McKinley strode warily. Roosevelt strutted. McKinley was an administrator. Roosevelt was a leader.

The Panama Canal was begun in earnest after many false starts. The Monroe Doctrine, for three-quarters of a century a passive deterrent to European involvement in the West, acquired a corollary, and the Roosevelt Corollary spoke explicitly of the United States exercising an "international police power" still fighting words, a century later.

Indeed, America's 20th century really began in September 1901. The country acquired a big stick and, more important, a willingness to brandish it. Roosevelt dove into the conflict between Russia and Japan precisely the sort of dispute Americans were happy to avoid before and won the peace, at Portsmouth, N.H. Within three months of becoming president, Roosevelt was using the term "captains of industry" and setting forth antitrust policies that resulted in litigation against the railroad, beef, oil and tobacco industries. The government began inspecting meat and preserving wild places.

What to make of the world that Roosevelt helped shape? He put the muckrake on a pedestal, the government in overdrive, the nation in thrall. He transformed conservation into a secular theology. He introduced some of the questions that bedevil us still, especially the role that a free government should play in regulating the commerce of a free nation. He lived large and made the nation think big.

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