Some presidents have their names placed on schools, or airports, or highways. William McKinley's name graced a mountain—the tallest in North America, no less.
Not any more. On Monday, Barack Obama officially renamed Alaska's Mount McKinley, returning the giant peak to the original name of Denali, or "great one," given to it by the Athabascan people. McKinley, a former Ohio governor who was president at the end of the 19th century, was originally given the honor by a gold prospector who liked his support of the gold standard. The name stuck, though it has been a source of debate for years.
For starters, Ohio's political leaders aren't too happy about the name change. "There is a reason President McKinley's name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy," Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement issued Sunday night.
But how monumental, really, is McKinley's legacy? It seems a fitting moment to ask historians what kind of president the country's 25th chief executive really was.
Check the rankings of American presidents by historians or political scientists, after all, and he comes out above average, even underrated, but hardly top tier. A composite of recent presidential rankings by stats wizard Nate Silver found that McKinley came in at 19th among the 43 men who have held the office.
"He tends to be stuck in the middle—not great but not terrible," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who did his own ranking last year. "The problem is this is where presidential legacies go to be forgotten," he said. The ones whose tenures were lukewarm are taught less often in schools and chronicled by fewer historians. "He's kind of victim to this sort of zone of forgotten presidents."
He also suffers from directly preceding Theodore Roosevelt in office, standing in the shadow of a man thought to have started the modern presidency and widely considered both on the right and left as one of America's greatest presidents.
But that's not a fully fair assessment of McKinley's time in office, say some historians. "I've never called him great, but I do think he was effective and important," said Lewis Gould, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Texas who wrote a biography of the 25th president. And when it comes to presidents, he said, that's "not a bad standard."
McKinley's presidency is often most remembered for two things: his 1896 election ushered in a period of Republican dominance, and he widely expanded the country's involvement in foreign affairs. The Spanish-American War was fought during his presidency, which led to the annexation of the Philippines, foreshadowing future complex conflicts around the globe.
"It was under McKinley that the United States took on a much more prominent role internationally," said Robert Saldin, a professor at the University of Montana who has studied McKinley. "It has amazing parallels to America’s involvement in world affairs today—for good and for bad—and the first time where America really stepped onto the world stage in a major way."
Yet how those milestones are viewed by history has shifted significantly over the years. While he was remembered favorably in the years right after his death—McKinley is one of the four presidents to be assassinated in office—his reputation later fell, aided in particular by those who considered him an imperialist. Up until the 1960s, Gould said, McKinley was seen as a weak president, manipulated by those around him, too easily pushed into foreign involvement. "There was one famous little quip that he had the backbone of a chocolate eclair," Gould said.
But then a historian named L. Wayne Morgan wrote a book in the 1960s that asserted McKinley was a better leader than many realized, and Gould followed with a book in the early 1980s that argued McKinley was the first modern president, not Roosevelt. As the University of Virginia's Miller Center on the presidency writes on its Web site: "He is now viewed as a President who tried mightily to avoid war ... who acted decisively when all the diplomatic cards had been played, and who asserted great presidential authority over his cabinet and generals."
McKinley broke with many precedents, historians say. In the past, presidents didn't speak directly with the public on policy issues and didn't campaign on behalf of their fellow party members or themselves. McKinley did both. He was talking about leaving the continental United States to visit Hawaii and Puerto Rico before his death, Gould said, something no president had done in office before. And he held press briefings, leaked news to reporters, and used mailings and printed propaganda.
"In terms of presidential leadership and style, he looks a little bit more like a modern president," said Saldin. "He’s been misplaced as just a standard-issue, old-style president where really he was a key force" in what would become a more contemporary style of presidential leadership.
Gould, who taught an independent study course to Karl Rove in the late 1990s about McKinley's election that not only helped inspire Karl Rove's strategy in the past but his soon-to-be released book, says McKinley's leadership style is something of an enigma. He was known to be a good listener, polite to Democrats, but also very focused on what he wanted. His secretary of war, Gould recounted, once said McKinley was utterly "indifferent to credit but he always had his way."
So would he care that his name was being removed from Denali? Gould thinks it's unlikely. Speaking to his secretary in late 1899, McKinley said “that’s all a man can hope for during his lifetime — to set an example — and when he’s dead, to be an inspiration for history.”
As Gould says, "he wasn’t interested in having a lot of memorials built up for him."