On a stroll through the Golden Gate Park Panhandle near my son’s apartment in San Francisco last week, I came upon a bee-loud glade protecting a classical monument that was erected to President William McKinley in 1907. The country’s 25th president, Ohio born and reared, is unusually memorialized in the bay area, maybe because he spent a few lovely days there shortly before a gunman martyred him at a pan-American fair in Buffalo six months after he began his second term in 1901.
Up the coast a ways in Arcata, a few people are campaigning to cleanse the town square of its McKinley statue because he was a friend of the privileged and the robber barons of industry and he represented the country’s brief flirtation with imperialism, qualities that are associated in more fevered minds now with the 43rd president, one George W. Bush. But in the tolerant environs of the Panhandle park, where John Kerry signs outnumber all Bush emblems by a ratio of roughly 500 to 1, Bill McKinley still presides sweetly over impromptu soccer games, lovers and solitary troubadours with never a hint of disrespect.
While admiring the black bronze statue, it occurred to me that contrary to all evidence maybe Bush is a secret student of history after all, although an inattentive one, and that he is modeling his presidency on a World Book summary of McKinley’s.
Look, they are not so different on a cursory examination. Both loved to deliver rehearsed speeches, kept taxes off the rich and corporations, cast a kind eye upon rapacious trusts, made religion a partner of government and found excuses to embark on foreign conquests to elevate American power in the world after campaigning on doing just the opposite. You will remember Bush’s "no nation building." McKinley demanded the Philippines after the quick and painless victory over Spain in 1898 so that he could "uplift and Christianize" the little brown brothers (they were 85 percent Catholic and 4 percent Muslim), but then he had to beat down a long bloody insurrection that was far costlier to the U.S. than the war. Then the country had to endure the news of brutal concentration camps and water torture of Filipinos, raising the debate about whether the U.S. Constitution followed the flag. Like Bush, McKinley’s administration concluded that it didn’t. The islands finally won their independence nearly a half-century later.
Their differences are stark, too. McKinley really didn’t want to invade Cuba and fight Spain but was driven to it by his own party, the big newspapers and many in his administration. Bush invaded Iraq eagerly and spurned the advice of experts in his own government and the world. Despite his stiff bearing, McKinley was something of a blithe spirit, preferring to stay at home and minister to his sick wife. When the anarchist shot him at point blank, all he could think to do was plead with an aide to break the news to his wife gently.
Though the fruits of the Spanish-American War were permanent, McKinley’s legacy was cut short because he was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, the most liberal president in history. Roosevelt reversed everything McKinley stood for, going after trusts and "the malefactors of great wealth" and setting up government as the protector of the common people. The great progressive movement of the 20th century was off and running. It was as if George Bush had made Ralph Nader his vice president. There were indications that McKinley was softening his rigid support for privilege, which had widened the gulf between rich and poor.
We must begin to contemplate a much different second Bush term than that — if his party wins both houses, a term far worse for most Americans than his first. He will make permanent the tax cuts for the rich, complete the task, if he can, of effectively eliminating taxes on the very rich and substituting consumption and payroll taxes on workers (it’s an idea worth exploring, he says now), and with the Federal Reserve’s blessing privatize Social Security and sharply reduce its long-term benefits so that Social Security taxes can be used to meet defense spending needs.
With budget and trade deficits spiraling out of control and the dollar continuing its fall, we would have to pray that the Chinese and Japanese continue their strange behavior of building up their gargantuan reserve holding of U.S. government debt instead of diversifying into euros or something else. We won’t be able to irritate China over trade issues, Taiwan or North Korea.
If Bush can make the tax cuts permanent and finish the task of eliminating taxes on all investment profits he may be able to force a rollback of much that has been done since the second term of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt — either that or national bankruptcy. Enough good Republicans are left in Congress that he should not be able to do it. William McKinley’s shade would tell him, don’t try.