Last Friday marked the centennial of President William McKinley's death here in Buffalo, the victim of an assassin's bullet. His shooting at the Pan-American Exposition and subsequent death eight days later was as shocking to his generation as John F. Kennedy's was to ours.
McKinley was not a great president, but he was an effective leader. He was cautious about America's involvement in our 1898 war with Spain, hoping to resolve the problems in Cuba without military intervention.
Many viewed his diplomacy as weakness. His assistant secretary of the Navy and future Vice President Theodore Roosevelt stated the year before, "McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair."
Like any wartime president, McKinley's detractors emerged from the woodwork on both sides of the issue. With doves like Mark Twain calling him an imperialist, and hawks like Teddy Roosevelt picturing him as a coward, McKinley was exasperated.
Once into the war, however, he proved a resolute leader. He led the United States to victory, acquiring the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine Islands. He then followed through with an open-door policy with China and a desire to peacefully end worldwide isolationism.
Three quarters of a century later, President Ronald Reagan said, "There have been people who suggest my ideas would take us back to the days of McKinley. Well, what's wrong with that? Under McKinley, we freed Cuba."
We live in an age when the moral imperfections of many public officials create uncertainty among the electorate. And yet, 100 years ago, the American people recognized McKinley as a gentleman whose quality of character was crystal clear. Most historians agree that McKinley's greatest asset was the congeniality of the man himself. Will, as his family and friends called him, possessed a kindly, conciliatory nature that attracted even his political opponents to him. McKinley was beloved by Americans prior to his assassination. They were aware of the peculiar sweetness of his personality, his open affection for his invalid wife, Ida, and of his devotion to his creator.
McKinley was the only president not shot from behind, a man who looked into the eyes of his assassin with his hand outstretched in greeting. He was taken down in the first year of his second term, and therein lies the greatest tragedy of all -- what might have been.
No major city enjoys a reputation as the place where a president of the United States has been assassinated. Unlike Dallas, which took years to come to grips with the death of Kennedy, Buffalo wasted no time in publicly acknowledging its grief, and its regret, over the loss of McKinley.
The impressive McKinley Monument, dedicated in 1907 and standing in the shadow of Buffalo City Hall, is evidence of that fact. Engraved thereon are the platitudes of a city in mourning -- an eternal reminder that a beloved president made the ultimate sacrifice for his country while visiting here.
Buffalo was not ashamed to weep for William McKinley in 1901. Exactly 100 years later, we continue to remember this fine president with respect and solemnity.
JOHN BURKE JOVICH is a presidential historian who lectures, writes and consults extensively on the subject. He lives in East Amherst.
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