For 98 years, the highest mountain in North America officially carried the name of William McKinley, the third US president to have been assassinated in office. First federally recognized in 1917, the name for the Alaskan peak went back in popular usage another 20 years prior to that. Yesterday, in advance of a trip to Alaska, Barack Obama officially renamed it Mount Denali, a demand that had come from the indigenous Athabascan people, with a concurrence from the National Parks Service:
For more than a century, the tallest mountain on the continent was named after the 25th U.S. president, William McKinley.
Now, in honor of Alaska’s indigenous Athabascan people, who had always called it “Denali,” President Barack Obama is changing it back, the White House said in a release Sunday.
“This designation recognizes the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives,” the release said.
Actually, the National Parks Service told the US Senate recently that they didn’t object to a bill in Congress to change the name. Sen. Lisa Murkowsko (R-AK) had pushed the bill on behalf of her constituents:
Why not let Murkowski do this through legislation, rather than executive order? Senate Bill 319 was introduced in late January, but it has not yet been reported from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee for a vote in the full Senate. The hearing from which this clip was taken took place in June, but Congress has been kept busy since then on other matters. This isn’t exactly the most pressing of issues in Washington or Alaska, for that matter.
Obama apparently wanted a cheap win before heading out to Alaska. It’s a curious political choice to pander to Alaskans while irritating voters in Ohio, though, where William McKinley’s political career started. John Boehner, the nation’s highest-ranking Ohioan these days, ripped Obama for the executive action, as did Senator Rob Portman:
“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.
“I’m deeply disappointed in this decision,” Boehner said after noting that McKinley served in the Army during the Civil War before representing Ohio in Congress and as governor.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement posted to social media that he was similarly “disappointed” in the decision to rename the mountain long named after “a proud Ohioan.”
“The naming of the mountain has been a topic of discussion in Congress for many years. This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress,” Portman said.
It’s doubtful that this will create enough anger in Ohio on its own to swing an election, but this comes in context over a long-lasting controversy over Obama’s executive actions. With the arrogance and capriciousness of Hillary Clinton becoming a central issue in her campaign — the secret e-mail server, and the nexus of corruption around the Clinton Foundation — this might stick to the consciousness of Ohio voters as a real-world example of its dangers. It certainly won’t help Hillary Clinton in Ohio or in Alaska, though.
There are two valid objections to this act. First, it’s an arbitrary and capricious use of executive power in pursuit of a petty end. The federal government controls vast swaths of Alaska land, and Congress should exercise joint authority over it with the executive branch. We seem to be getting farther and farther from that concept. This may be a comparatively minor and frivolous example of that problem, but in one way that makes this even worse. One might understand an executive overstep in an emergency or to secure the nation, but …. renaming a mountain?
Second, it’s somewhat objectionable for its dismissal of a martyred President. McKinley was in his second term when he was assassinated in 1901, after having led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War. He had served the Union Army honorably during almost the entirety of the Civil War, from July 1861 to Appomattox. He enlisted as a private, and got a commission from Ohio Governor David Tod, and retired as a brevet major shortly after the end of the war. McKinley and James Garfield get overlooked in the company of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy among the ranks of presidents who gave their lives in office for their nation, but McKinley was nearly as accomplished as Lincoln, and arguably more accomplished as President than either Garfield (who only served five months before his death) or Kennedy.
One has to wonder: when will we start stripping Kennedy’s name off of federally assigned locations? In 2061, perhaps?