By Bill Collier- Winning an election depends upon a mix of popularity, a well-run campaign built on sound strategy, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary. This must be coupled with a firm grasp of the best techniques, and technologies, to reach the right people at the right time. Finally, it depends on a mastery of narrative.
This has been the genius of “the architect”, as some call him, Karl Rove. With his ground-breaking book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, we gain deep insights into Rove’s genius, an important episode in American history, and the fundamentals of modern politics
No doubt the book was written as Rove’s valuable contribution to the study of American history. But, for me, it is much more than that. It is practically a scientific manual any would-be “influencer” should digest deeply and thoroughly until the insights gained become instinctive reactions. I intend to read this book often, take notes, and encapsulate its ideas until they become enmeshed in my train of thought. I liked it that much.
I should note: I am no fanboy. I have never had a problem holding back my criticism of Mr. Rove or anyone. But I took this book at face value and my review reflects the merit of the work. However, I should also add, the book gave me insights into Mr. Rove which certainly raised his esteem in my eyes.
McKinley fought the duel for the White House, first against the party bosses in his party, then against the populist and charismatic William Jennings Bryan. Bryan being of “cross of gold” speech fame. The duel was not pretty and makes today’s politics seem utterly pedestrian by comparison. Instead of mean names tossed about on camera, men fought it out with fists right in the convention hall!
(That McKinley turned those same bosses and his former opponents into allies during the general election is also an important lesson.)
My attraction to this book began with reading another review, by my colleague and business associate, Ralph Benko, in his Forbes column. Benko compared the election of 1896 to today and his review is worth a read for its insights. Mr. Rove’s publisher graciously sent me a copy for review on The Freedomist upon my request: and from the first chapter I was hooked.
To read history by an historian is one thing, but to read a well-researched history by one who has mastered the arts perfected by the object of that history is quite another thing. One discovers a great American, President McKinley, whose most endearing qualities are lost on the minds of many Americans. While not covered in the book, McKinley is most well-known for being assassinated shortly after his re-election. But this man re-wrote the political handbook, as it were, and, aside from changes in electoral coalitions and technology, the fundamentals laid down by this campaign remain valid.
One also discovers the deep insights which, love him or hate him, made and make Karl Rove himself a fixture in today’s political scene. What is more, the writing style really feels like Rove is talking about this campaign, narrating for us, WHILE IT IS HAPPENING. I might be forgiven for feeling like I lived through that election myself!
The book is accessible to anyone who enjoys history, biography, or politics. For those who want to understand politics, especially those trying to get their head wrapped around the role of delegates or how campaigns are run, this book is required reading as a primer. It is true that in 1896 there were no primaries or caucuses which informed the votes of delegates. But there was dependence on a combination of popularity among rank and file voters and the ability to recruit and elect YOUR delegates.
As Rove notes on page 95,
“In politics, it pays to be lucky. But to win, Hanna and McKinley would leave nothing to chance. They would insist on instructions for national delegates. This meant using their grassroots majorities at district and state conventions to vote to direct their national delegates to support McKinley as long as he was in the race.”
Party participation was much more intense and widespread back then. For this reason the multiple conventions by which delegates were chosen tended to reflect the “grassroots consensus.” Lining up your support to the delegate choosing process has long been a staple of politics. McKinley took it to a whole new level of mastery.
I might argue, in 2016 we see a master of dominating a strong plurality of grassroots supporters dueling with a master of managing the delegate selection process. This explains the sudden confusion as voters consider that how delegates vote may disagree with who won the greatest plurality of votes in their state. McKinley’s lesson from 1896, so aptly discerned by Rove, has somehow been lost on modern politicians in both parties.
More than the process, McKinley managed the narrative, and he did so against a worthy opponent in the general election. While it took him some time, eventually McKinley got down to confronting his opponent’s key issue, but on McKinley’s terms.
That issue turned out to be the economy. In particular, the right currency for the economy. Bryan was pushing for “free silver”, to debase the dollar and use the printing press to infuse the economy with cash. This would also make American exports more attractive, it was proposed. It was a populist notion aimed at “the rich.” It was designed to paint the Republicans as the party of the rich. As Rove notes on page 315, the answer was to open mills, not mints. McKinley went on the attack, undermining the very premise of Bryan’s argument. McKinley also went for the very workers and farmers Bryant was courting. McKinley said, “No one suffers from cheap money so much as farmers and laborers.”
In short, McKinley matched wits with a powerful narrative weaver by launching an equally powerful narrative of his own. This was not a narrative versus a counter-narrative, it was two opposing narratives, both offering prosperity as the final goal.
McKinley didn’t just argue “Free Silver won’t do what Bryan says it will do.” He didn’t just argue that the gold standard was superior. He argued: Gold will make YOU prosper and “free silver” will drive you to poverty.
The battle, if not explicitly stated in these terms, was between prosperity versus poverty. Bryan argued for what we could call “fairness” and “equality” and tried to make McKinley look unfair.
McKinley argued for prosperity, simple and clean and sure: Sound money would beat cheap currency and naturally rising income would beat socialist schemes. For every Utopian promise, McKinley offered a better answer. For every stereotype deployed, McKinley responded without holding back. (He painted Bryan as un-patriotic and divisive.)
The book itself is filled with these stories. One is left wondering how much better the GOP itself would be if every member of the Party read and understood what is contained in this book.
I would urge the reader to get this book and spend a lot of time with it. I would urge Karl Rove to consider digging much deeper into the general election. Perhaps with volume two? The book is more focused on the primary battle than the general election. But it was not found wanting.
I already knew from reading Benko’s review that this book would surprise me. If you watch Rove on TV expect a far more approachable style in plain language than might be possible in the brief segments in which he is featured. Rove comes across a storyteller and an historian. You will kick yourself if you don’t read this book.
Find the book HERE- The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters