It was William McKinley’s misfortune, historically speaking, that his successor happened to be the most colourful president in us history and also one of the most articulate, well-read and intelligent—whatever else one thinks of Theodore Roosevelt and his frequent bombast. For a long time, McKinley was thus seen as the last in a long line of undistinguished and boring postbellum presidents, all more or less directly tied to, and reflecting the interests of, the ascending power of finance capital. In recent decades, he has experienced something of a historical comeback, now often classed as ‘the first modern president’, or words to that effect. The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller, a former reporter for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, echoes that sentiment.

How persuasive is this case? McKinley did, it is true, install an up-to-date communications centre in the dilapidated White House once the war against Spain had begun in the spring of 1898, a war that began ostensibly in the humanitarian spirit of support for the Cubans but very quickly turned into a forthright imperialist gobbling up of Spanish colonies. He was also the first president to ride in a motor car (once), though it scared him considerably. Finally, his campaign of 1896 against the Democratic-Populist William Jennings Bryan included the first-ever direct-mail effort, funded by the deeply worried higher echelons of capital. Yet this was still a time when he could, as he liked to do, take a bracing evening stroll through the streets of Washington, benevolently chatting away with children and whomever he happened to encounter. His highest desire, in any case, was as uneventful and traditional a presidency as possible. He was a master of blandness.

McKinley’s White House, more importantly, betrayed no sign of what used to be called relative autonomy vis-à-vis the ruling class. Nor was he himself really any exponent of the Progressive Era, the multifaceted moment at the turn of the century when ‘reform’, whether middle- or upper-class in origin, was the call of the day. He would have been utterly bewildered had he found himself a participant in the campaign of 1912, the Progressive election par excellence, when issues of state, class and interests were aired at a level of sophistication not equalled before or since, and Eugene Debs pulled nearly a million votes on the socialist ticket. What McKinley did do, of course, was quite purposefully to launch the United States on precisely the kind of imperialist project and ‘jingo nonsense’ against which he had warned in 1896: ‘We want no wars of foreign conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression.’ His shift here, however, was typically executed bit by bit, ever cautiously, recasting the framework of policy so that it would always emphasize altruistic obligation while in essence preserving maximum us advantage should the occasion so demand. As it turned out, the occasion did so demand.

Where the ‘modern’ fits in all this is unclear. ‘Benevolent’ imperialism certainly became, in part and for contingent reasons, an eminently Progressive exercise: the mastering of foreign spaces and peoples for purposes of order and civilized uplifting. Even Roosevelt’s construction of the Panama Canal, however assertive a us move, was peddled in the name of universal civilization and the general interest of facilitating commercial flows. Thankfully, however, Miller’s work is not just another retelling of the imperialist story for a popular audience. It is that, certainly, but also something more unusual. By bringing in the place and background of McKinley’s assassin, the would-be anarchist Leon Czolgosz, Miller lays out a dual set of temporalities, as it were, that encompasses two distinct histories, narrated by turns: the whole postbellum history of working-class struggles, featuring massive repression and widespread violence on a scale whose only contemporary equivalent in the industrializing world was tsarist Russia; and the astonishing move to empire of a traditional European kind in 1898 and beyond. The two trajectories begin and essentially end with the shooting of McKinley on 6 September 1901, at the Temple of Music on the grounds of the spectacular Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

The narrative device is creative but not entirely successful because there is no real dialectic that culminates in the given moment of confrontation. The two ‘stories’ (I use the word advisedly) do not actually ‘meet’ in the obvious climax. McKinley was not directly engaged in anti-working-class operations, nor were they an explicit theme of his political posture. Repression was harsh indeed, yet it was largely a matter not for the White House but for the individual states, the courts and the private armies of capital such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Deployment of Federal troops in the enormous Pullman railway strike of 1894 was an exception, actually ordered by a Democratic president and Attorney General. Czolgosz, meanwhile—or, rather, the anarchist and labour forces which formed his ostensible setting—did not focus primarily on anti-imperialism, though it became an issue, especially in the election year of 1900. Unions, radical or otherwise, were in a struggle to survive as unions, to avoid obliteration at home. Modest gains in the early 1900s notwithstanding, recognition and inclusion would have to await the Depression era and a different Roosevelt. The two political projects that Miller pursues, then, can only be juxtaposed, one chapter for each, back and forth.

The duality also happens to be asymmetrical, which also undermines the two-track strategy. To state the obvious, we know a lot more about McKinley than we do about Czolgosz. One was president, a master of platitude, to be sure, but a figure of obvious significance and well-documented background: lower-middle-class Ohio childhood; stroke of luck in the Civil War when future president Rutherford Hayes took to him; typically middling career in the House after 1877. The other was a young, mostly unemployed worker of Polish extraction and uncertain persuasion. Born in Detroit in 1873 but raised mostly in the Cleveland area—not too far from McKinley, thirty years earlier—Czolgosz was an obscure drifter and a loner even within his most immediate milieu, his behaviour decidedly on the odd side. There were doubts, in fact, about his mental state; and today he might perhaps have been ‘diagnosed’ with one of those proliferating ‘disorders’ of social anxiety and phobia. After the deed, however, he was perfectly coherent in his justification: McKinley represented the pinnacle of power, and just as it was right to shoot the king of Italy, it was right to shoot him. (Umberto I had been felled by an Italian-American anarchist the previous summer; Czolgosz carried a newspaper clipping about this in his pocket.) It remains the case, though, that Czolgosz acted alone, that he was not a member of any group, and that he had acquired no history of prominent action: not much there to provide a compelling storyline for Miller to match McKinley’s imperialist trajectory.

While the McKinley thread thus moves rapidly to the expansionist sequence of 1897–98, the Czolgosz counter-narrative soon leaves its object aside for a leisurely, fairly well written tour through the major incidents of working-class mobilization: from the 1870s and the Great Railroad Strike, through the 1880s and the Haymarket conflagration with its subsequent judicial murders, to the massive and bloody strikes of the early 1890s—Homestead, Pullman. The account of the role of specific anarchists or anarchisants is combined with sociological history throughout. This is well worthwhile; not many popular histories are devoted to demonstrating so graphically what the working class was up against in this period or the important place of anarchism within that conjuncture. When Czolgosz re-emerges in the narrative as a twenty-year-old hit hard by the depression of 1893, his figure is secondary to more visible and ideologically ‘real’ anarchists such as Alexander Berkman, who shot but did not kill Carnegie’s henchman Henry Frick, and Emma Goldman. The latter actually provides the slender narrative connexion back to Czolgosz. Mesmerized by a Goldman speech, Czolgosz twice sought her out in public settings; but these were brief encounters that had no organizational upshot.