Sunday, September 06, 2015

A Blast From the Past

It’s funny how a name from the past will pop up in the news from time to time.

Take William McKinley, for example.

I hadn’t thought of him in years. In fact, I haven’t thought of him at all.

But there he was this past week, grabbing headlines from coast to coast.
It seems our 25th President has had his name stripped from the tallest mountain in the U.S., located in Alaska. It will now be known as Denali, which it was called for thousands of years before a prospector attached McKinley’s name to it in 1896.

The prospector was a gold miner and McKinley was a staunch supporter of the Gold Standard. You can draw your own conclusions.

The change came with the blessings of President Obama who just so happened to visiting Alaska at the time. That's a good way to draw an appreciative crowd.

It seems the natives have been restless for years about having their 20,237 foot peak named after a man who never laid eyes on it or set foot in Alaska.

Indeed, Alaskans has been seeking the name change since 1975, but Ohio politicians who count McKinley as a native son and kindred spirit blocked every attempt.

So Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the mountain would be renamed under authority of federal law which permits her to name geographic features if the Board of Geographic Names does not act within a "reasonable" period of time.

 Jewell cited the board's failure to act on the state's four-decade-old request, saying "I think any of us would think that 40 years is an unreasonable amount of time.”

Ohioans were outraged. To hear tell, they rank McKinley up there with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Moses, Caesar and Hammurabi as great leaders.

They found voice in House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio whose primary job seems to be uttering knee-jerk criticisms of President Obama.

Boehner said he was "disappointed" in the decision. "There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy," he said in a statement.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump tweeted, “President Obama wants to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali after more than 100 years. Great insult to Ohio. I will change back!"

He apparently failed to check in with his close personal friend Sarah Palin who, as governor of Alaska, referred to the mountain as Denali.

Putting all the political rhetoric aside, what about McKinley’s legacy?  If we remember him at all, it was because he was assassinated by a crazed anarchist and replaced with the truly memorable Teddy Roosevelt.

Check the rankings of American presidents by historians or political scientists and he comes out above average, even underrated, but not top tier. A composite of recent presidential rankings found that McKinley came in at 19th among the 43 men who have held the office, according to the Washington Post.

"He tends to be stuck in the middle—not great but not terrible," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who did his own ranking last year.

"The problem is this is where presidential legacies go to be forgotten," he said. The ones whose tenures were lukewarm are taught less often in schools and chronicled by fewer historians. "He's kind of victim to this sort of zone of forgotten presidents."

Interestingly enough, McKinley broke with many precedents, according to the Post article.  In the past, presidents didn't speak directly with the public on policy issues and didn't campaign on behalf of their fellow party members or themselves.

McKinley did both. He was talking about leaving the continental United States to visit Hawaii and Puerto Rico before his death, something no president had done in office before. And he held press briefings, leaked news to reporters, and used mailings and printed propaganda.

So it seems right and proper that he should have something named after him. It has been pointed out that there is no city in Ohio named McKinley. Given that fact, renaming Cleveland might be as good idea. It’s a bit of a comedown from a massive mountain but if there was ever a city that could use an image upgrade….

McKinley is not forgotten, however. There is a memorial library and museum in Niles, Ohio, that would do Washington, D.C. proud.

He is even remembered in Southern California. He was beloved in Redlands because he kept foreign oranges out of America and made the city wealthy.

In 1903, President Roosevelt, came to town to unveil a memorial bust of McKinley atop a granite pedestal, engraved "Patriot, Statesman, Martyr." The head was sheltered beneath a fancy stone canopy supported by columns.

The canopy and columns have since disappeared -- as has Redlands' orange supremacy -- but McKinley's head remains.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

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