"Father Abe freed me, and now I saved his successor from death, provided that bullet he got into the president don't kill him."
James Benjamin Parker
Forty–three men have been president of the United States. Most Americans probably can name a handful — maybe — and most of the ones they can name were president during their lifetimes — as if history didn't exist prior to their births.
(That assumes that the people with whom you are speaking can tell you who is currently president — and, frankly, you would be surprised how many people cannot. I haven't decided whether that is a blessing or a curse.)
Many Americans, of course, can name a few presidents who served before they were born — a list that usually includes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at the very least although people can surprise you with what they know and what they don't know. If they can name Washington and Lincoln, they may also name Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.
As some of you probably know (I wish I could say all, but I have to be realistic), those are the four faces chiseled into Mount Rushmore.
Roosevelt became president when the incumbent president, William McKinley, was shot and killed 115 years ago. In fact, McKinley was shot inside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on this day in 1901. His assassin shot twice. The doctors who treated McKinley were only able to retrieve one of the bullets; the other lingered in his abdomen and killed him eight days later.
Roosevelt had only been vice president for about six months when McKinley was shot. McKinley's first vice president died on the eve of McKinley's campaign for re–election, and Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, was nominated by the convention to be McKinley's running mate in 1900 — the president felt it was the delegates' decision to make, not his. Roosevelt was known to have his eye on the White House, and the vice presidency seemed like a good stepping stone for Roosevelt's own run in 1904.
Roosevelt might have been elected in '04 — unless McKinley decided to seek a third term, which, at the time, was permissible. It was only after the presidency of Roosevelt's cousin, Franklin, about 50 years later that the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two four–year terms was ratified.
Had fate not intervened, McKinley might well have been a candidate for a third term. He was only 58 when he died — younger than many of his predecessors had been when they entered the presidency — and McKinley was already into his second term.
Polls that measure public approval of a president didn't exist at the turn of the century. They wouldn't exist, in fact, until Roosevelt's cousin was in the second term of his presidency. But if they had existed in 1900, they might well have reported solid public approval of McKinley's performance in office.
Clearly, McKinley was popular enough to be re–elected — and by a wider margin than the one he received when he was elected. That is something Barack Obama cannot say. But on the surface it isn't as impressive as students of presidential politics might expect. See, even though America's last three presidents were re–elected by less than overwhelming popular margins — and the one before that wasn't re–elected at all — it has been commonplace historically for presidents to be re–elected by landslides.
Seen in that context, McKinley's electoral performance may not be especially eye–popping unless you keep a few things in mind. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that realigning elections as the 1896 election is frequently labeled (and which I plan to discuss in greater detail in November) are not always dramatic landslides. Sometimes they are virtually imperceptible unless you consider preceding voting patterns — and what happened in the elections that followed.
The opponent's relative strengths and weaknesses are important factors to consider, too. McKinley had to win both elections with William Jennings Bryan, one of the great orators in American history, as his foe. My guess is that McKinley was lucky to live in the pre–TV and pre–internet age. Far fewer people got to hear Bryan speak in 1896, and that almost certainly worked to his benefit.
He could have been appealing in our time. I have heard him described as open, cheery, optimistic, friendly. That generally plays well with the voters. He was not necessarily a gifted speaker, though, so it may have been a good thing for him that TV and radio played no roles in elections at the time.
When McKinley won re–election in 1900, he carried Bryan's home state of Nebraska, a traditionally Republican state that made an exception for an exceptional favorite son. Bryan was nominated by the Democrats for the presidency three times. The 1900 election was the only time he lost his home state (with the exception of an 1894 Senate race).
It is fair to assume, even though we have no polls to support this conclusion, that McKinley was a popular president on this day in 1901 when his assassin, a 28–year–old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, fired two shots into the president's abdomen. Czolgosz was about to fire a third time when James Parker, who had been a slave as a child, reached for the gun and prevented the shot from being fired.
As it turned out the first shot struck a button and was deflected. Only the second shot struck McKinley, but it ultimately proved fatal, probably due to inadequate medical care. There was a surgeon in Buffalo who might well have saved the president, but he was performing delicate surgery in Niagara Falls. During the operation he was interrupted and told he was needed in Buffalo; he insisted he could not leave even if it was the president of the United States who needed him. It was at that point that he was told the identity of the patient.
A couple of weeks later, after McKinley had died, that surgeon saved the life of a woman who had suffered almost exactly the same wound as McKinley.
McKinley's death was quite a shock to the American public — who had been misled by unjustifiably optimistic prognoses into believing McKinley was recovering.
He was the third American president to be assassinated within 40 years — and the last to be assassinated before John F. Kennedy more than 60 years later.
Oh, and Roosevelt did win a full four–year term on his own in 1904 — but he did so as the incumbent.