One of the most well-known William McKinley enthusiasts thinks President Obama needs to find a new way to honor the 25th President after changing the name of an Alaskan mountain.
Karl Rove, a top political strategist for President George W. Bush, has a book coming out about the former President in November called The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.
TIME spoke with Rove about Obama’s controversial decision to change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali.
Why are you so interested in McKinley?
For the 36 years after McKinley is elected President, Republicans dominate Congress and the White House. He’s a modernizer. He saw the Republican party faced a demographic challenge and that in order to win, it had to get blue collar workers and immigrants. He was a unifier. He was faced by a charismatic, slash-and-burn Democrat who attacked Wall Street and the wealthy… And yet McKinley adopted a unifying tone in his campaign. He inherited the presidency during the time of a long and dark and deep depression, where unemployment is at 15 or 20 percent and people are literally dying of starvation, and he becomes President and the country rights itself. He wins reelection in 1900 by a huge margin because the country is enjoying peace and prosperity.
What do you think of Obama’s decision to rename Mount McKinley?
In a serious vein, I would hope that he would find a gracious way to honor McKinley, who is an important figure in American history. And I’m not certain he has the authority to have done what he did; the designation was granted by law of Congress in 1917. In a more jocular way, the guy ought to be more gracious to the guy who made it possible for him to be President. [Hawaii, Obama’s home state, was annexed under McKinley’s presidency.]
How do you respond to the reasoning behind the name change to Denali, that it honors the name Alaska natives call the mountain and is a more fitting tribute than to a President who never visited the state?
Madison never visited Montana, but we have a river named after him. We have many cities, many towns, many physical places named after people who never visited there. Roosevelt, Texas, was never visited by either Franklin nor Teddy, but it’s important to honor them. I would hope that the President would be gracious enough that in his attempt to honor the native peoples of Alaska, he would also find a gracious way to honor one of his illustrious forebears.
So how should Obama honor McKinley instead?
I think that he would be well advised to sit down with the governor of Ohio and the Speaker of the House and the Senators from Ohio [McKinley’s home state], and see if he can’t arrive at a thoughtful way to honor this important figure in American history.
This interview has been edited for length.
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