What inspired you to write this book?
I began looking for a book idea several years ago with two requirements in mind. First, I wanted to find a good story--something with fascinating characters, a bit of tension, and a compelling narrative. Second, I was looking for a story of some significance. That led me instinctively to the turn of the century. Everything about the United States--its economy, its politics, the way people played and worked -- were all rapidly changing. It was a turning point in the nation’s history. McKinley and his assassin Leon Czolgosz, I quickly discovered, offered a fascinating story in their own right, but also spoke to broader issues. McKinley tends to be overshadowed by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. Is that fair? There is no question that McKinley gets less space in the history books. Roosevelt ranks as perhaps the most charismatic president in U.S. history and accomplished great things. But McKinley’s five years in office were, if anything, more action packed. He led the nation into war with Spain, he annexed the Philippines, and he sent troops to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion. Many of his decisions would have long-lasting consequences. U.S. troops would remain in the Philippines for decades. Puerto Rico and Guam would be brought under--the Open Door-- that would guide presidents right up to Pearl Harbor. McKinley, however, was the type of man who preferred to work behind the scenes and was not one for bombastic speech making. This modesty has certainly hurt his profile, undeservedly so. Do you see parallels between McKinley’s presidency and what the United States faces now?
Yes. Many of the issues about America’s role in the world can be traced back to his years in office. McKinley and his team were at various times torn over whether the United States, as a former colony itself, should avoid interfering in the affairs of other governments, or whether to use its power to correct what it considered to be problems in other countries. Overlaying that conflict was the pursuit of American economic interests, which demanded a strong U.S. presence abroad. Ultimately, I think, McKinley decided in many cases that there existed a happy union of interests--what was good for the United States was also probably good for others. And what of the anarchist philosophy that Czolgosz said he subscribed to?
There are a number of similarities between the anarchist movement in the 1880s and 1890s and what’s happening in some parts of the world today. Radical anarchists of that time saw in terror--what they called the “propaganda of the deed”--an opportunity to draw attention to their cause. Some also felt they were justified in using violence because, in their view, government and society was using violence against them--aggressive police tactics and an unjust legal system. Finally, and this really struck me, was the power of imitation. It seemed like every time the police, in the United States or in Europe, captured and punished an anarchist, it only inspired others to take up the fight themselves, even to the point of hoping to die in the same manner that their heroes had. What surprised you about your research?
What struck me the most was the richness of those who became secondary characters in the book. There is the adventure-loving Frederick Funston, the army officer who--passing himself off as a prisoner of war--led a secret raid on the camp of the leader of the Filipino resistance. There is Admiral Dewey, a desk-bound naval officer who worried over a forgettable career until he was given the opportunity to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila. There is Emma Goldman, “Red Emma,” who loved anarchism, and the men who shared her views. And there is even McKinley’s wife, a demanding and sickly woman, who would have tested most men, but found in McKinley an ever faithful and loving companion. Getting to know these people--as well as McKinley and Czolgosz--was one of the great joys of the book and I’ll miss spending time with them.