President Obama’s unilateral renaming of Mount McKinley in Alaska has agitated the Ohio congressional delegation, and more than a few observers across party lines, largely because it was done without constitutional authority. To be sure, such niceties have not stopped this president in the past. But it will be interesting to see if Congress, in this latest instance, is content to let the powers of the executive branch expand—the expense of Congress.
It has also stimulated what we might call the bumptious left. Dana Milbank, writing in the news pages of the Washington Post, was quick to deride constitutional concerns by asserting that conservatives prefer the name of Mount McKinley to the aboriginal Mount Denali because William McKinley, the 24th president of the United States, was a “white guy. And … the mountain is mostly white.”
Undeniably, of course, William McKinley was a “white guy” and, as Milbank may not be aware, the last president to be shot to death in office (1901) before John F. Kennedy. There is a certain irony in this historical footnote: In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy himself derided his opponent (Richard Nixon) as a “young man [whose] approach is as old as McKinley.” Of course, Kennedy could hardly have suspected at the time that he and McKinley would share a tragic connection. But his offhand remark, like Dana Milbank’s, was not just a non sequitur but startlingly ignorant about President McKinley.
There is another irony as well. Much has been made of the fact that Mount McKinley’s new moniker is an Athabascan term—the meaning, either “great one” or “high one,” remains imprecise—and that the eradication of McKinley’s name is a much-needed restorative for Alaska’s native population. Perhaps so. But the historical fact is that, among Native Americans, William McKinley was especially revered in his lifetime—and not because he was a “white guy,” but because his policies toward Indians were enlightened and empathetic, and he took the trouble to meet with them, discuss their concerns, and take them seriously.
This is illustrated by an extraordinary passage in Margaret Leech’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of McKinley (1960), who was assassinated while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and whose body lay in state there before returning to Washington.
Uncelebrated among the tributes was the farewell of Chiefs Geronimo, Blue Horse, Flat Iron, and Red Shirt, and the seven hundred braves of the Indian Congress …. They had thought of President McKinley as their good friend. Many of them had gone to see him lying in state at the Buffalo City Hall. Like visitants from an earlier day, the men with painted faces had filed past the flower-banked casket, sharing the nation’s grief; and, among the gathered cards, was the big crudely lettered square of pasteboard that had come with their wreath of purplish evergreen leaves. “The rainbow of Hope is out of the sky. Heavy clouds hang about us. Tears wet the ground of the teepees. The palefaces too are in sorrow. The Great Chief of the Nation is dead. Farewell! Farewell! Farewell!”