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'Triumph Of William McKinley' Speaks To The Ages, Karl Rove Says


Political strategist Karl Rove has been writing history. He's been studying divided America.


People on the top are growing richer and those are the bottom are getting angry.

WERTHEIMER: The political parties are in transition. Voters are attacking corruption and Wall Street.

INSKEEP: Rove's new book explores the presidential election of 1896. When Karl Rove describes a political movement of that year, it sounds familiar.

KARL ROVE: It was an agrarian, populistic movement that believed that not only was the little man getting screwed economically, but he was getting screwed politically.

INSKEEP: You heard him say populist. One reason we use that word now to describe the sort of uprisings that support candidates ranging from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump is because people used that word then. There was a populist party, or people's party, in 1896. It united with the Democratic Party behind a candidate named William Jennings Bryan who attacked the power of big money.

ROVE: He gives a famous speech at the Democratic convention that literally makes him the nominee. And at the end of the speech, he finishes it by saying, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.

INSKEEP: Bryan demanded economic policies that he said would be better for the little guy. Big business was terrified and spend millions of dollars to elect the Republican in 1896. That's the big story of that election. But Karl Rove's book argues there is something more. His book is called "The Triumph Of William McKinley." It focuses on the Republican who actually won the election, though he is less well-known today.

ROVE: History gets McKinley wrong and gets the 1896 election wrong. And the more I read on it, the more amazed I was at who McKinley was and how he comported himself.

INSKEEP: Now, when you hear Karl Rove talk about 1896, you are, of course, also hearing a modern-day political strategist. Rove did much to direct the election of President George W. Bush in 2000. And as we'll hear, he says he did that with William McKinley's 1896 campaign on his mind.

ROVE: They organized large numbers of groups. There was a big craze sweeping the country - a brand-new technological advance was grabbing the attention of lots of young people. They were called bicycles. So they organized the Wheelmen Association. They organized black voters and German voters and Scandinavian voters and women voters - because women were allowed to vote in a few Rocky Mountain states. And McKinley is the first to do this. And he realizes he has to do this because the Republican Party cannot win unless it breaks out of its old pattern of being in the north - the white Anglo-Saxon party. He's the first Republican candidate for president ever endorsed by a member of the Catholic hierarchy.

INSKEEP: Are you trying to tell modern-day Republicans something by recounting that part of McKinley's story?

ROVE: No, what I'm trying to do is tell the story of 1896 election. I think there are lots of lessons for both parties in it. That's one lesson in it for the Republicans. But I want to be clear - I didn't write this book as a polemic. I wrote it because I think it is an underappreciated chapter in American history. In this election, we pay more attention to the loser, William Jennings Bryan, than we pay to this transformational political figure, William McKinley.

INSKEEP: I appreciate what you're saying - that you want to understand the history for what it was. Nevertheless, you come at this is with a unique perspective. And in fact, when you recount McKinley or his advisers or managers going around the country, I had this image that perhaps Karl Rove had had similar experiences from time to time in 1998, 1999, 2000.

ROVE: Well, I have to admit, as I read about the 1896 campaign, it began to color my view of what needed to be done. One of the things, for example, that McKinley did - in the book there are eight keys to his victory that I put in the summary. McKinley won states that had not been won by the Republicans in five elections. And so, yeah, one of the lessons out of this is, broaden the electoral battlefield. That's number four on my list. Number three is, become a different kind of Republican, which he definitely was by this outreach to Catholics and immigrants and new voters. He was also, interestingly enough, the first presidential candidate to appear before black audiences as he sought the nomination and actively and openly ask for their support.

INSKEEP: Of course, this book is coming out now. But you said it was inspired by research dating back to the 1990s. Did you say that this actually colored the way that you thought about the 2000 presidential campaign?

ROVE: Sure, absolutely. I mean, look, when we went for West Virginia in 2000, the last time the Republicans had won it in an open race for the presidency was 1928. And so in making the argument that we needed to go after West Virginia and Tennessee and Arkansas - states that had voted Democratic or were the home states of Bill Clinton or Al Gore - I have to admit, I was provoked by McKinley's very astute understanding that he would win the election. And this whole emphasis that he had on being a different kind of Republican. That was a very important part of the thinking about 2000.

INSKEEP: And you're talking about people widening the map on thinking about the fact that the 2000 election was decided in Florida. But if George W. Bush had not won West Virginia, Tennessee and a couple of other states, Florida would not have mattered.

ROVE: That's correct. If he'd lost any one of those, it wouldn't have mattered.

INSKEEP: Well, what's happening now in the Republican Party?

ROVE: They're a group of people who are so angry at the condition of the country and what they think that President Obama has done to it that all they want is somebody strong who promises to pick up a brick and throw it through the plate glass window. And for them, Donald Trump is that person. Now, it doesn't matter that he supported Nancy Pelosi for speaker or said she hadn't done enough to impeach George W. Bush. It doesn't matter that he was a registered Democrat until recently. It doesn't matter that he likes the single-payer healthcare system that they have in Great Britain. These things don't matter to them.

INSKEEP: You just shredded Donald Trump. Why hasn't Jeb Bush done that?

ROVE: Well, you'd have to ask Jeb Bush. One of the reasons is I'm a pundit, he's a candidate. He's looking to add and not subtract. I get to comment, and this will obviously result in an ugly tweet from Donald Trump who likes the controversy. He'll say one thing to you to your face and another thing when he gets on his tweet feed.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're not in his camp.

ROVE: Look, I'm going to be for the Republican nominee, whoever that is. But I do think that politicians who are successful are people who add, don't subtract. I think the Republican nominee must be somebody who can do better than Mitt Romney did. I agreed with Donald Trump after 2012 when he took a two-by-four to Mitt Romney for having said self-deportation. I want to know what happened to that guy who made such an astute observation in 2012. What happened to him by 2016?

INSKEEP: Has Jeb Bush been a good candidate?

ROVE: Well, yes and no. At times he's been good. At times he's - right now, he's in the barrel. Everybody went to Des Moines, Iowa, to write that his campaign was over and instead walked away saying, this guy's let it loose and going. The interesting question will be this - in politics, we ofttimes learn more about how people handle themselves in adversity than we do when they're on top. And Jeb is in the barrel right now. Everybody gets to go through the barrel. And the question is, how is he going to be when he comes out the other end? It's going to be really interesting to watch.

INSKEEP: Karl Rove is the author of "The Triumph of William McKinley: Why The Election Of 1896 Still Matters." Pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

ROVE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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