Karl Rove's Gilded Age

The hollowness of Big Government Conservatism—then and now

March-April 2016

Karl Rove, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 496 pp., $32.50.

THESE ARE trying times for Karl Rove, and for the “big-government” Republicanism he did so much to create and promote. In November it will be ten years since his first major political defeat, the 2006 midterm disaster that gave the Democrats majorities in both the Senate and the House, halting the “rolling realignment” Rove had predicted two years before after the narrow reelection of his boss, George W. Bush. In August 2007, with the house of cards collapsing, Rove, its “architect,” slipped out the side exit, just ahead of Senate investigators looking at his part in the mass firing of U.S. Attorneys in what Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said were “apparent attempts to manipulate elections and push out prosecutors citing bogus claims of voter fraud.” The freshman senator Barack Obama, asked to comment on Rove’s legacy, suggested that he had, after all, been a master builder—of “a political strategy that has left the country more divided, the special interests more powerful and the American people more shut out from their government than any time in memory.”

Released from the Beltway, Rove might have retreated to higher ground—like his boss, reborn as Churchillian painter and memoirist, or Dick Cheney, coming forth at intervals to recite new dark verses in his Book of Revelation. There is also the example of David Axelrod, every bit Rove’s equal as campaign maestro, now contentedly directing the mugwumpish Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, while also offering pastoral homilies on the harshening Clinton-Sanders contest via CNN and Twitter (“Man, this is what I DON’T miss about politics: Finger-pointing & post mortems before 1st game’s even been played!”)

A game? Not for Rove. He pledged himself long ago to “the fight,” whether waged on the high plains of battleground states or in knifethrusts in the back alleys of Fox News. His previous book, the memoir Courage and Consequence, relitigated every controversy in the Bush presidency, large and small, with a fanaticism that rekindled the suspicion that it really had been “the Rove presidency,” in Joshua Green’s phrase.

Now Rove is back, with The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, its publication timed for the GOP nomination, its hero “a different kind of Republican who felt the GOP must broaden its base,” in proleptic rebuke of today’s party, intent on defying the facts of demographic change. McKinley as subject will not surprise seasoned Rove-watchers. “Karl Rove has a riff, which he gives to anybody who will listen, entitled ‘It’s 1896,’” Nicholas Lemann reported in January 2000, when Rove was steering Bush toward the nomination:

“Every national political reporter has heard it, to the extent that it induces affectionate eyerolling when it comes up. ‘It’s 1896’ is based on Rove’s reading of the work of a small school of conservative revisionist historians of the Gilded Age (that is, historians who love the Gilded Age), one of whom, Lewis Gould, taught a graduate course that Rove took at the University of Texas.

Here’s the theory, delivered at Rove’s mile-a-minute clip: everything you know about William McKinley and Mark Hanna—the man elected president in 1896 and his political Svengali—is wrong. The country was in a period of change. McKinley’s the guy who figured it out. Politics were changing. The economy was changing. We’re at the same point now: weak allegiances to parties, a rising new economy.”

Rove has poured this pent-up enthusiasm into the familiar mold of the you-are-there campaign history. The result isn’t especially good, but it isn’t especially bad either. And much effort has gone into it. Rove thanks archivists and researchers who dug through the “faded manuscripts and discontinued newspapers” his narrative draws on, and he seems to have absorbed the entire secondary literature. It’s gratifying to read an ideological conservative who quotes, rather than heckles, Richard Hofstadter. And there is something else, too—Rove’s feeling for the personal, human cost of politics. The best pages in Courage and Consequence were the first ones, on his painful childhood and youth, and they helped explain—if not quite mitigate—the grim brass-knuckling of adversaries: Democrats, hostile journalists and the Republican defector Jim Jeffords. Campaign maestros develop an almost maternal attention to the inner lives of the “talent” they serve, and this solicitude shines through Rove’s gentle portrait of McKinley’s sorrowful marriage. It matters to Rove that McKinley doted on his wife, Ida, a quasi-invalid who endured a torment of headaches, seizures and paralysis, worsened by the deaths of two young daughters—one died of cholera, the other of scarlet fever. McKinley was “quick to attend without complaint to her every whim and need,” interrupted meetings to check in on her, finding time, even during his first election, to the House of Representatives in 1876, “to sit in the darkened parlor at night, talking with his wife.”

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