Following up on The Destiny of the Republic, I’ve just read The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller, the story of William McKinley’s assassination by the anarchist Leon Czoglosz. (Like The Destiny of the Republic, this book’s Kindle price is $14.99, putting it within a couple of dollars of the hardcover’s discounted price.)
Miller decides he needs to use the standard flashback narrative structure for his book: Start with the act of assassination, then back up and use alternating chapters to show how each man ended up in Buffalo for the fateful act. This works OK, but it turns out that neither McKinley nor Czoglosz is sufficiently interesting to carry each one’s part of the narrative, so we end up with a detailed history of the Spanish-American war and America’s involvement in China and the Boxer Rebellion, contrasting with a detailed history of the Anarchist movement. This was fine with me, since I didn’t know much about any of that stuff. Here are some other random thoughts:
- Wars went a lot faster in those days. The Spanish-American war was over in a matter of months.
- The criminal justice system was also a lot faster. McKinley died on September 14, 1901. Czoglosz’s trial began on September 23 and was over on September 24. The jury spent 33 minutes to reach a verdict (although it didn’t take them that long–they decided to kill time in case it looked like they weren’t taking the thing seriously). Czoglosz was executed on October 29.
- Deaths, on the other hand, were slower. Like Garfield, McKinley lingered for quite a while: he was shot on September 6 and lingered for more than a week.
- Czoglosz is more interesting than Charles Guiteau because he was clearly sane. Still, he was pretty much a cipher–he had almost nothing to do with the actual Anarchist movement, and his motives for killing McKinley were obscure at best. He seems closer to Lee Harvey Oswald than John Wilkes Booth in the assassins’ hall of shame.
- McKinley had a 56-inch waist. Sheesh.
- Here’s another reason why I don’t really understand conservatism. Conservatism is about preserving the best of the past, our traditions, the wisdom of our ancestors. But how do you decide what’s wisdom, what traditions to preserve? The America described in this book was just awful–who would want to return to a world without child labor laws, where strikes could be destroyed by government violence, where industrialists ruthlessly cut wages to increase their profits….? Ayn Rand, maybe? Anarchists had a point–if this was the best that governments could do for the people, maybe we’d be better off without government.