Source: Century Magazine
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Some Personal Characteristics of President McKinley”
Author(s): Long, John D.
Date of publication: November 1901
Volume number: 63
Issue number: 1
|Long, John D. “Some Personal Characteristics of President McKinley.” Century Magazine Nov. 1901 v63n1: pp. 144-46.|
|William McKinley (presidential character); William McKinley (personal character).|
|George F. Hoar; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley.|
|By John D. Long, Secretary of the Navy.|
Some Personal Characteristics of President McKinley
I remember one day at a Cabinet meeting a secretary of one of the departments urged the discharge of some female clerk who had after many years grown at once incompetent and obstreperous, but relied for her retention in office upon the help of a senator. It was a senator who had been especially bitter and malignant in his attacks upon the President’s administration. But I shall never forget the kindly smile with which he said: “Go slow. It may be some old friend of Senator ——’s wife, and I really would not like to trouble him or her. You know, when any of you are too easy I am inclined to be a little severe, and when you are severe I am inclined to be easy. However, Mr. Secretary, I shall of course sustain you in anything you think ought to be done in the matter, but think it over.” Of course no removal was made.
He was considerate toward everybody. His first thought seemed to be to make all with whom he came in contact or had political or private relation happier and more at ease. As he drove through the street or along the country road, he never failed to recognize a salutation, even if it were only the wistful face of some child or the kindly interest of the wayside laborer. There was no schoolboy or -girl who had the happy fortune to be admitted to the Cabinet chamber that did not receive from his hand the flower which he was wearing in the lapel of his coat.
How many times I have seen him break from an important task to receive a call from a visiting delegation of teachers or excursionists, and that, too, without the slightest impatience or expression of irritation, which almost any other man would have uttered in conferring the same favor. It was in this spirit that he went among the people of the South, and did more than any other man has done since the Civil War to restore among them the fraternal spirit. He acted in this no doubt from a wise policy, but he also acted in the genuine spirit of his own generous nature.
In the long railroad journeys which I made with him over the country his latchstring was always out. If his fellow-countrymen could not come in, he went out to them, fearless, frank, confiding. “Who will attack me?” he would say. “I have n’t [sic] an enemy in the world.”
There was always the pleasant smile from the car window, whether the gathering were large or small, and, when time allowed, the kindly word of response.
I never saw a man with such an even and unruffled temper. During the years in which I was with him, under the strain of war, in the heat of the congestion of closing Congresses, under the pressure for place, I never heard him utter an impatient word. He never scolded nor whined. He never showed irritation, neither at the Cabinet board nor, so far as I know, in separate conversation with its members. If there were a difference of opinion, his views, which of course prevailed, were put in a way as considerate as if his were not the final word.
He had a fine sense of humor. He remembered incidents and narrated them with effect. Twice a week, on Cabinet days, it was a delightful thing to go into the Cabinet room at eleven o’clock in the forenoon. The President would be standing near the window, looking fresh, with a white waist-  coat and a rose in his buttonhole. A few people left over from the morning callers would be lingering for a word, each getting a pleasant one. In due time the Cabinet would be left with the President. He would take his seat at the table, but before settling down to business was more than likely to entertain us for ten or fifteen minutes with some story of the war, or some anecdote about public men, or some experience of his in old campaigning days.
He was great enough not to be afraid of availing himself of the help and counsel of those about him, especially his constitutional advisers and the leading men of Congress and of the day. Whether it was a message to Congress, or a state paper, or a speech to be delivered, he would often read it to us and consult with us alike as to its matter and its form. He seemed to repose with absolute confidence in those whom he trusted, never reminding them in any way that any subject was a matter of confidence or suggesting that it be so regarded, but taking for granted that the confidence would be kept.
So far as I observed, he did not primarily dictate his papers or speeches. His habit was, when alone in his office or in his chamber, to write parts of these on slips with a pencil from time to time, afterward reading them to some of us, and then turning them over to his stenographer for a better copy. He gave a good deal of thought to phrases. It will be noted, I think, in almost every speech and paper that there are a few sentences especially significant and striking as texts. These were usually the result of careful and deliberate thought.
In this frank consultation with those about him whom he trusted there seemed to be no favorite. While his friendships were of the warmest, he never seemed to single out any one official as the special depositary of his confidence or as his special adviser. To the head of each executive department he looked with regard to matters in it.
So, also, in legislative matters no one senator or representative was the avenue to him, but each in the legislative line which he represented weighed with him. If Senator Hoar, for instance, differed from him on the question of the Philippines, it only made him the more eager to welcome Senator Hoar, to whom he was sincerely attached, with the assurance that an honest difference of opinion on one question in no wise lessened the influence of his advice and sympathy on another.
President McKinley had the art of intrusting the discharge of administrative details to others. It is needless to say that the business of his office is enormous—almost too great a load for any pair of shoulders to carry. And yet he discharged its duties promptly, in an orderly way and efficiently. He gave free rein to his executive chiefs, yet kept himself thoroughly informed of their doings.
He was an unusually wise adviser. His tact and sense of the fitness of things were often of great service in checking us from hasty or unwise action. Many a paper prepared with great care has been taken to him, to which he has patiently listened, then kindly suggested that perhaps it better be laid aside or modified.
He was not easily disturbed. Only once, and that was during the events leading up to the Spanish War, did I see him in a state of what is called nervous excitement. It then manifested itself in his repeatedly sitting for a moment, then rising, then sitting again.
He was the very ideal of serenity and deliberation. He was an instance of what some of the physicians say is the proper thing—good health without much physical exercise. Now and then he would send for one of his Cabinet officers to take a walk with him in the street—sometimes to drive with him in his carriage. In the summer at noon it was his habit to go into the large park in the rear of the White House, although I often then found him there sitting in the shade rather than walking about.
His personal habits were of the simplest and most unassuming. He was a constant attendant at church on Sunday, and never, if he could avoid it, would travel on that day. He acted in this, it seemed to me, alike from a religious principle upon his part, and from a very considerate respect for the principles of others.
The moral side of his character was very pronounced. He was by nature a rightminded man. There was no guile in him. There never was the suggestion of an inclination to accomplish even a good result by improper means.
As has been said, it was the consciousness of this moral quality in him which won him not only the love and affection, but the confidence of all the people. Other men have been as brilliant, as wise, as gifted in speech, as efficient in action,—some more,—but have failed for lack of this quality to command  that confidence and those honors which cannot be attained without it.
Make every allowance for the ambition which every public man feels for success and fame and popularity; make every allowance for the selfish motive that enters into every act even when it is good, and yet there remains in President McKinley the instinctive, inherent impulse to do good for its own sake, to serve his country, to better the condition of its people, to help those who labor, to lighten toil, to promote human happiness.
I have never seen anything more significant than the journey with his dead body from Buffalo to Washington on the 16th of September last—the wife of his heart, around whom in her frail physical health his arm never before had failed to be a support, entering the Presidential car bereaved of his devoted care; the school-children with their little flags at every station standing with uncovered heads and full of even an unconscious sympathy; the lines of workingmen, as we went through manufacturing villages, in their shirt-sleeves, arranged in a military platoon, with their hats off and held in military salute against their breasts, every face among them speaking of the loss of one they knew to be their friend; the greater crowds at the larger towns and cities, from which, as the train stopped, seemed to burst almost spontaneously his favorite hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” which will always be associated with him.
All this was not mere curiosity. It was the genuine expression of a universal feeling, and by its responsiveness to him who called it out was a measure and index of his own character.
The nation has suffered the loss of a chief magistrate. The people, one and all, have lost a personal friend.
Criticism of public men is a good thing and should not be deprecated. It is hard when it is unjust, especially so if, accompanied by personal feeling or party spirit, it is strained and malignant. In the long run, however, the balance is restored. President McKinley, considering the magnitude of the events of his administration, has escaped bitter criticism more than his predecessors, notably Lincoln.
Still, remembering what that criticism has sometimes been, it is right that those who knew him should bear testimony to the prayerful and conscientious spirit in which he met the great problems of his administration—greater than any since Lincoln’s time.
He made every effort to avert the Spanish War. When negotiations for peace came, every impulse was for the largest generosity. In dealing with the Philippines his unreserved and single purpose was their civilization and help. His state papers are historic monuments to the embodiment in him of the principles of American freedom and liberty and civilization. No better appointments than his were ever made or could be made to the great, responsible positions of civil trust in our newly acquired possessions. His whole idea of the administrative service abroad and at home was for the most honest and most efficient service.
For himself, as for Lincoln, with whom he ranks, his martyrdom, while the most cruel of bereavements to his country, only the more illuminates his high place in the hall of his country’s fame.