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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Karl Rove’s “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why The Election of 1896 Still Matters”

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Karl Rove joins me today to discuss his wonderful new book “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why The Election of 1896 Still Matters”:



The audio:


The transcript:

HH: Turning now to Karl Rove, the Architect, who is the author of a brand new book, The Triumph Of William McKinley, which is absolutely riveting. Karl Rove, the Architect, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, even though it is a grim day. We’ll keep people posted on this news out of San Bernardino. I’m curious whether or not you think these events, and we don’t know much about this one, yet, change politics much?

KR: Well, I think it depends on what we find out about it. If this is a hit of organized crime or drug overtones, it’s one thing. But if this is some kind of a terrorist attack, it’s another thing. But it does add to this general sense of our society is not particularly safe. It sure seems mystifying, though. I mean, three men in white masks and AK-47s at a developmental center in some kind of a conference center or something? It’s just, it just does not, it just does not sound good.

HH: It’s not random workplace violence. It’s not one deranged individual. So we’ll find out more, and we’ll post them up on it, but we can’t advance the ball by speculating. But I can advance people’s knowledge of William McKinley. Now I’ve got to confess two things to you, Karl. When the news broke about San Bernardino, I left the house so quickly, I left my annotated book and about four pages of notes at the house, so I’m operating off of memory, save for one page. Number two, I stopped at the St. Louis Convention, because I will not be rushed. I love this book so much.

KR: Oh, well, thank you, Hugh.

HH: And I know how many years you, I just love every page of it, and I’m going to recall this from memory. My favorite line is the person who says celebrating the Clevelandism on the birthday of Thomas Jefferson is like singing a te deum to Judas Iscariot on Christmas Day.

KR: Oh, yeah, this is John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, who is a real left winger in the Democratic Party, hates Cleveland. He’s a radical, an economic radical. But he’s also a real estate developer, which is an odd sort of combination.

HH: Well, I’m remembering that from memory, because the invective of that era makes ours pale by comparison, actually. They went out of their way to insult and hurl aspersions of people.

KR: Oh, yeah. No, he, Altgeld, hates Cleveland. He’s come to loathe him. During the Pullman strike, he and the president of the United States are involved in a telegram war. The President sends federal marshals and federal troops to Chicago and the Midwest because strikers are keeping the mail from being delivered and trains from operating. And Altgeld basically tells him buzz off, get the federal presence out of here, this is a state issue. He sympathizes with the strikers. And you know, they literally sent each other telegrams telling each other to go do something with each other. I mean, it’s very funny.

HH: It’s remarkable. Now my only complaint about the book is I spent a lot of my youth in Niles, Ohio. I’m probably the only person who’s interviewed you who’d been in the McKinley Memorial, sadly dilapidated in Niles, Ohio. And you know, I know Canton and Akron very well, I know Cleveland very well. Youngstown makes it in. Stark County makes it in. Everything, there is no Warren, Ohio mention in this book, Karl Rove.

KR: Well, I had to make some cuts somewhere, so…

HH: It’s impossible that McKinley did not spend time in Warren, Ohio. That’s, I’m just pointing…

KR: Well, he actually does. He campaigns there. In fact, he campaigns there several times. When he runs for governor, he appears in Warren twice, once in 1891, and again in 1893. But what’s interesting is when he is a young man, and is being groomed as an orator, he’s sort of the lieutenant governor of New York, goes to Canton when McKinley is a young man, and hears him speak at a rally. And the next day is in Columbus and tells the state Republican leadership hey, you’ve got this great, young veteran who’s an orator who you really ought to put on the trail. One of his earlier appearances is in Warren, Ohio.

HH: All right, so we’ll have to get that in the second edition. I expect there will be an afterward.

KR: (laughing)

HH: A couple of other things about McKinley. There’s Niles McKinley High School, and Canton McKinley High School. And this McKinley Memorial, have you been to the Niles McKinley Memorial, by the way?

KR: I have been. I’ve been to the library in Niles that was given to the people of Niles by a benefactor, an industrialist from Youngstown who was a friend of McKinley’s. But I’ll tell you, the sarcophagus, which is where McKinley is buried in Canton, is you go inside this, and it’s one of the most remarkably beautiful resting places. It’s black marble, and it was literally donated, built with the donations of schoolchildren who sent pennies, nickels and dimes. His death horrified the country, because it was at the hands of a terrorist.

HH: Yeah.

KR: An anarchist killed McKinley, and it was an international movement that had attempted to kill the Czar, kill the Pope, had succeeded in killing the Empress of the Austria-Hungarian empire, attacked the leaders of Italy, France and Spain. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful resting place.

HH: Well, I have been to the William Henry Harrison resting place along the banks of the Ohio. It is not so beautiful, but I’m glad McKinley…what did you make when they changed McKinley to Denali?

KR: Well, first of all, you’d think that President would be more grateful to the man who made it possible for him to be president. William McKinley is the man who annexed Hawaii.

HH: Yup.

KR: And Hawaii was still an independent republic. Then Barack Obama could not have become president of the United States.

HH: I had not considered that. Let me ask you about your dedication. Wayne Morgan, Louis Gold, R. Hal Williams and Charles Calhoun, the modern McKinley men, who are these people?

KR: These are four great historians. H. Wayne Morgan is sort of the mentor of Lewis Gould and Hal Williams. He died, unfortunately, last year, 2014. He was a great scholar, taught at the University of Oklahoma for most of his career, but he literally, I got to meet him in his final year. He was enormously supportive of my project. He didn’t know me from Adam’s all fox, and he was so encouraging with advice, so thrilled that somebody would be writing about McKinley. And he’s written the only really good biography of McKinley in the modern era. There’s a wonderful biography by Margaret Leech, which is some 60-some odd years old. But Wayne Morgan wrote McKinley And His America, which is a wonderful biography. The other three, Lewis Gould and R. Hal Williams were young PhD candidates together at Yale, and became sort of protégées of Morgan, and are wonderful historians of the gilded age. Gould introduced me to McKinley. And R. Hal Williams has written a wonderful little volume for the University of Kansas on the election of 1896. But these men did a lot to sort of, they’re revisionists. They took history as it was popularly explained and challenged it by saying you’re underestimating McKinley, you’re overestimating Bryan, you’re overestimating Hannah, and you really are missing the real story here. And one of those members is Charles Calhoun.

HH: Well, I want to, another historian. I’ve got to urge Americans that if I am right, we are headed to an open convention, they have to read Karl Rove’s brand new book, The Triumph Of William McKinley, which is linked over at, because the convention of 1896 and the process of delegate gathering, which is recounted in detail, and in riveting detail throughout the entire process of the primary season and the convention season, there are lots of lessons here, Karl, about what a Charles Dawes can do for you in Illinois can be done for any of these would-be nominees in any state right now.

KR: Exactly. Now Charles Dawes, for your listeners, is in 1894, a 18 year old attorney living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He’s from Ohio originally, went west to make his living, make his mark, and he practices law in the same small office building as another young lawyer five years his senior who’s a member of a men’s reading and debate club called the Round Table. His name is William Jennings Bryan. Charles G. Dawes is a friend of William Jennings Bryan. They together have lunch in a diner in Lincoln, Nebraska called Cameron’s, with another young man, the ROTC instructor at the University of Nebraska, who is John J. Pershing.

HH: Wow.

KR: And this young man is plucked out of obscurity by McKinley, who entrusts him with the command of the most important and brutal primary campaign of the year, the Illinois primary, and Dawes beats him, Dawes beats the bad guys, they call themselves the combine, and they’re led by the blonde boss, the boss of the Cook County Republicans. And when he wins, when McKinley wins Illinois, the primary contest is over. He’s now going to win the general election.

HH: When we come back from break, we’ve got to talk about the blonde boss, the quiet boss, Quay. We’ve got to talk about all these big personalities that are lost. You’re recovering them from history, and of course, I will update everyone on this shooting, the mass shooting in San Bernardino when I come back as well. But Karl, I’m curious as to the reception of the book. Are other people finding it as timely as I am, because that’s an accident, actually. You could not have anticipated this.

KR: You know, there are a couple of very interesting interviews, I mean, reviews. And there’s one review out by a fellow at the Hoover Institution who jumped on the similarities between 1896 and today right from the start.

HH: So I’m not alone, and I’m urging people, it’s linked over at

— – – – – –

HH: My rule is do not report things that you do not know confirmed to be true. Speculation does not help, and therefore, I am not going to do that. That’s a lesson I probably learned best on the night not of a shooting, but of an election in 2000 when I was up until 1:00 in the morning for PBS, and Karl and his gang couldn’t figure out that they’d won Florida that night, Karl. I blame you for that.

KR: Well, yeah, no, they couldn’t. And in fact, you know, they took until the next morning, some of the networks, to call Florida, or to sit and declare it undecided. But we also had in 2004 what’s interesting to me is this was a problem that persisted afterwards. In 2004, we won Ohio by essentially the margin that Barack Obama won it in 2012, and it took until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning for the networks to call Ohio for Bush, because the exit polls had pointed towards Bush losing the state. And they were calling Ohio relatively early in 2012, basically 9:00 and 10:00 at night, because the exit polls had pointed towards Obama winning it, even though they both were sort of seeing roughly the same margin.

HH: You know, Karl Rove, this is a bit afield from the Triumph Of William McKinley, and we’ll come back to the new book. It’s linked over at Matt Bevin was supposed to lose Kentucky’s governor’s race by four or five points. He won by nine. The Israeli elections were wrong, the English elections were wrong, the elections of 2014 were wrong. I was suspicious of the polls of 2012. I turned out to be wrong. What is your takeaway about polling right now?

KR: Well, look, I think two things. One is the exit polling had some grave errors in 2000 and 2004 that were perhaps corrected by 2012, but I’m still suspicious of it. It takes a while. You look at the preliminary numbers of the exit polls, and they differ somewhat from the final numbers that you get a day or two later. But the whole craft of polling, you know, that we’re relying so much on to give us a scientifically precise view of the electorate, the whole polling world is in meltdown, because you know, look, I’ve got a landline in my house. I use it for one purpose. When people come and punch the button on the gate, that’s where it rings. Otherwise, I don’t use it and don’t answer it. And it’s increasingly in our mobile society difficult to get people to answer their cell phones, and if they answer their cell phones, to then engage in a, you know, 10 or 15 or 20 minute discussion with a complete stranger giving their opinions.

HH: Well, now I want to go back to the book, because, and we can talk politics another time. There’s something I want people to understand about William McKinley. It’s a dynamic that I think is going to carry through the next 40 years. McKinley was a war hero. The book opens with him running a suicide mission in the Shenandoah campaign. But he was also at Antietam, and your depiction of his driving the wagon of food to his fellow soldiers across a field, God bless the lad, according to a wounded soldier. He was, his colleagues wanted him nominated for a Medal of Honor, which he blocked their effort. He was made a second lieutenant on the spot. There is something for men who go to war and distinguish themselves, subsequent in politics. They don’t get flapped by much, Karl Rove.

KR: Yeah, they don’t, he was not a guy who got easily, you know, scattered. He stayed focused, he was used to planning. It was in his nature, so he plans the first modern presidential primary campaign, and plans the first modern presidential campaign. And he’s the guy who is driving this. He’s a thoughtful, methodical, meticulous, well-organized individual, and it shows in his approach to politics.

HH: Do you think the same sort of surge in candidacies of those who have seen combat is underway now as we saw in the aftermath of the Civil War, and you retell Rutherford B. Hayes, and of course, McKinley and James Garfield, and there were many others. But do you think the same thing is going to be happening, the precursor of which is Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst and Dan Sullivan, and a bunch of other veterans like Mike Pompeo in the House?

KR: Yeah, well, I don’t know, but I hope so, because the, you know, the love of country that shines through in McKinley shines through in a great many of these veterans who, you know, McKinley volunteered. He was not conscripted. He volunteered at the age of 18, and the one thing that we have here in the names that you just mentioned is they all were people who volunteered for a life of service wearing our country’s uniform, and then in a time of danger, rose to the danger. I mean, I know Dan Sullivan personally. And I mean, what a magnificent, he was at the White House. You may not know this story about Dan Sullivan. He was a White House fellow, which is really hard for somebody in the military to be, but he was just superb. And at the end of his year of service, Condi Rice went to Pete Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and said you know, this guy is handling Iranian sanctions and terrorist financing issues. And he’s terrific. I want to do what you are not willing to do heretofore, and that is I want to hold him over for one more year at the White House. Pace thought about it a little bit, and came back and said to Condi, okay, he can stay at the White House for one more year in the cushy billet. But he has to agree in advance to two consecutive back-to-back combat tours in Iraq. And Dan Sullivan said where do I sign. And that’s the kind of person he is.

HH: Wow, I did not know that. There is a lot people need to learn from this. I did not know, for example, that McKinley was so deeply religious. He shares that in common with your former boss in the White House, but I also have to pay you a high compliment. I’m 59. I’ve been reading about this era forever. I’ve never understood bimetallism. Honest to God, you couldn’t get me to do the silver/gold thing, you couldn’t pay me to try and understand it, and now I do, Rove, because of your book.

KR: (laughing) Well, good, because that’s what I was trying to do, was to make people understand what this complex issue is. You haven’t gotten to this point, though, but on Page 275, William Jennings Bryan goes behind the issue of silver versus gold and explains what he thinks is at the center of the election campaign. And give me just a second, let me read this to you, and you tell me if you think you may have heard this once or twice since. This is in the Cross of Gold speech. Bryan says, “There are two ideas of government. Republicans believe if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, then their prosperity will leak through on those below. Democrats believe if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” That’s what he saw as the heart of the battle between silver and gold.

HH: And on it goes. I will tell you that I have gotten to the point where the sitting secretary of the Treasury under Cleveland gives the greatest speech ever on behalf of gold, and that is a great speech on behalf of sound money, where he says you really cannot reduce what labor earns.

KR: Exactly.

HH: It’s a fascinating debate that has not gone away in this country still.

KR: No, and McKinley wins the argument on behalf of conservative economic policies, upon a gold currency favored by foreign investors and Wall Street. He wins that argument by tailoring the argument to explain what a gold standard and a silver standard would mean to working-class people. There’s a wonderful letter from his cousin, William McKinley Osborne, detailed to sit in the New York headquarters in order to watch everything and report to him. And he reports on a meeting in the Republican Executive Committee, and says I reminded them, as you often reminded us, it is with the interest of the working men that we must be concerned. Capital can take care of itself. And it was this focus on the laborers and the middle class and the working-class people that won McKinley the election, and realigned American politics for the next 40 years.

HH: I’m coming right back with Karl Rove, one more segment.

— — – – –

HH: Karl Rove, I want to get back to McKinley. Before I do, though, a quick question on Trump. Donald was on yesterday. He’s been on this show a dozen times. Then, he went on Alex Jones today. He goes everywhere, he talks to everyone. He says the same thing – he will not be moved. Does he endure?

KR: His difficulty is he’s got a high floor, and so far, a low ceiling. He has been frontrunner since July, but he’s, in the Real Clear Politics, I think he’s about 27-28%. He’s found it difficult. Early on, he got into the low 30s on a pretty consistent basis. Now, he’s in the mid to high 20s. The question is, can he move beyond that? My sense is that there is an increasing sense among large swatches of the Republican electorate. He now has the highest percentage of people who say that under no circumstances can they as Republicans vote for him. And the question is what is he doing in his campaign to ameliorate that rather than increase that?

HH: And the Quinnipiac Poll that came out today say that Hillary is judged untrustworthy by a margin of 60-35. Can you overcome that?

KR: Well, look, the only way to overcome that is to go thermonuclear on whoever the Republican nominee is. I mean, what they’re going to do is they’re going to take the playbook of the 2012 Obama campaign, in my opinion. Remember, in February or March of 2012, Messina goes to Obama and says we can’t get reelected on the basis of what you’ve done. You stay stimulus, they say economy lousy. You say this, they say that. We can’t get reelected on the basis of your forward-looking vision. We’ve tested all these things, the State of the Union Address, you went out and gave it, six weeks later, nobody cares about it, nobody thinks it’s significant, nobody remembers it. So the only thing we can do, they called it the grand bet. We’ve got to take $200 million dollars, one out of every five dollars in our campaign war chest, and spend them on irradiating Mitt Romney, starting in May. And if we don’t get it done by Labor Day, then we will be out of money and out of time.

HH: Wow. Well, we’ll look for that again. Now back to McKinley, because on Page 30, you write this. “The animating principle of McKinley’s political career was a concern for creating conditions that would allow ordinary people to rise.” That would be a good admonition to any Republican nominee, wouldn’t it?

KR: It would, and you know where this animating principle came from? Not just his own personal experience, but he also believed fervently, like another Republican president, in the promise of the Declaration of Independence, because he had seen it and observed it in his own life, and the life of his community. Just like Abraham Lincoln, he saw common, ordinary people rise in life through hard work and opportunity and effort and personal responsibility. And that’s what he wanted to do. That’s what he saw the responsibility of leaders in government to do, is to make it possible for people to rise on their own.

HH: You know, he’s immensely likable, but the amount of suffering, again, I don’t have my notes, but Ida and he lose two children, one of whom at the age of six. The immensity of the suffering, Karl, it’s like Lincoln, and it does produce great men.

KR: Yes, and look, he is, he and Ida, I mean, these are tragic. Katie was born on Christmas Day. He called her his favorite Christmas present. And when she dies at five, their second child to die, to lose baby Ida a matter of weeks after she is born, I mean, Ida suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury, probably a concussion. It brings on epilepsy. She spirals into depression, and she becomes an invalid. And the one thing that keeps her alive is the love of her husband, and the thought of his career. And he is a very devoted man. And he is such a man of obvious character and integrity that William Randolph Hearst makes a critical decision during the 1896 campaign. He says don’t attack McKinley. That’ll boomerang. Attack Hannah. Always depict him in the cartoons as a fat man in a suit of dollar bills, and McKinley as a puppet or a midget, but never go after McKinley directly, only go through him through indirection, because his character is so sterling that people will rally to him if we do that.

HH: When we do part two of this, Karl, beginning with the St. Louis convention, we will pick up on that general election campaign. But meantime, everyone get ready for that by going over to buy The Triumph Of William McKinley. It’s linked at It truly is an extraordinary book to make the history of 1896 and the run up to it, the gilded age, come alive in a way that I actually don’t recall any book doing. I don’t really recall there being any parallel book. Most American history stops with the Civil War, gets a little bit into Reconstruction, but here it is all resurrected and made interesting, and made phenomenally significant for today. Karl Rove, thank you, my friend. The book is linked over at

End of interview.


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