William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane, the Assassination of William McKinley, and Donald Trump

Let’s talk about William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, you may know, was an American newspaper magnate in the early twentieth century. He owned just about all of the largest in papers in every major American city. He also expanded to magazines and created the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.

Hearst became so wealthy that he built a frikkin’ castle on top of a mountain. Hearst Castle is now a major tourist destination – we made it a point to stop there on a family vacation in 2001. It’s big and bold and breathtaking, sitting high above the California landscape. It has some of the finest pieces of art in the world. There are like 150 pools. What they don’t tell you on the tour is that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic.

Wealth wasn’t enough for ol’ William. He sought power. He controlled the editorial positions and coverage of political news in all of his papers, thereby exercising enormous political influence. Problem was, Hearst routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures, and distorted real events. Consider this anecdote:

“We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one,” remembers Vern Whaley, an editor for Hearst’s Herald-Examiner. “When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, ‘You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.’ The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, ‘Sit down, Vern.’ He says, ‘The whole story’s a fake.'”

Hearst basically invented yellow journalism, and he used it to get what he wanted.

In 1898, he called for war against Spain. Public support grew. And, uh, then we went to war against Spain.

After World War I, he called for an isolationist foreign policy. Public support grew. And, uh, we became an isolationist nation, despite the atrocities developing abroad.

He used his influence to win elections, twice winning a seat to the House of Representatives as a Democrat.

There was no one to check Hearst. No internet, no 24 hours news cycle, no Daily Show, no John Oliver. Hearst owned the largest papers, controlled what they said, and so he avoided criticism in the press. He was untouchable. William Randolph Hearst could get away with anything.

Let’s talk about Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane, you may know, was released in 1941 and is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Maybe the greatest. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography, a miracle for its time. Here’s Roger Ebert:

Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.

What you may not know is that Citizen Kane was loosely based on Hearst’s life. Orson Welles never confirmed this, but, I mean, come on. It’s not that hard to connect the dots. Charles Foster Kane builds a newspaper empire, obtains massive amounts of wealth, builds a castle atop a mountain, and then begins a ruthless pursuit of power, ultimately ending in tragedy and death.

Remember the part where I said that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic? Right. So, yeah, he wasn’t really a fan of Citizen Kane. Not surpisingly, he didn’t like the idea of the film painting a very unflattering portrait of him.

And remember the part where I said that Hearst always got what he wanted? Right. So, yeah, he used his influence and resources to attempt to prevent the film from being released.* Welles and his studio resisted the pressure, but Hearst was ultimately successful in pressuring theater chains to limit showings of the movie.

*As it turns out, Hearst never watched the film.

The resulting box office numbers were mediocre. It was only later that the movie was appreciated and watched by the masses.

Let’s talk about William McKinley.

McKinley was our 25th President, serving from 1897-1901. He has the same expression in every single picture.

McKinley was also one of four Presidents to be assassinated, along with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and John F. Kennedy.

Why is it that we know so much about the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, but nothing about McKinley?* I mean, sure, he didn’t free the slaves or speak in a funny New England accent, but he was the President. And a good one! I think I speak for all of us when I applaud the Dingley Act of 1897, which led to rapid economic growth and a brighter future for all Americans. He won his re-election by a landslide and had the good foresight to pick Teddy Roosevelt as his Vice President.

*Or Garfield, but we can talk about him another time.

McKinley was an important man. A good man. We should know more about his assassination.

Thankfully, I have this blog. So, here’s what happened: On September 6, 1901, McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York, for an event called the Pan-American Exposition. Things were a little more lax in 1901, and McKinley was out and about shaking hands with the public* when he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Perhaps the main reason we don’t talk about the assassination is because Czolgosz is an impossible name to say.

*McKinley enjoyed meeting with the public and was reluctant to accept security (lol). In fact, the President’s Secretary feared an assassination attempt would take place on this trip FOR THIS VERY REASON and twice took it off the schedule (lol). McKinley restored it each time (lol). Really, McKinley’s assassination is a result of an ‘ehhh it’ll be fine’ attitude.

Anyway, this guy Czolgosz had lost his job during the Panic of 1893 and turned to anarchism. He viewed McKinley as a symbol of oppression. So he decided to kill him. He attended the event in Buffalo, went to shake the President’s hand, and shot him twice. One bullet grazed McKinley, and the other entered his abdomen and was never found.

Here’s a drawing of the incident:


Thirteen days later, McKinley died from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds.

The next morning, Teddy Roosevelt took over, became wildly popular, and had his head etched into Mt. Rushmore. We forgot all about poor old Willie McKinley.

It was right around the turn of the twentieth century that William Hearst began dabbling in politics. Hearst was a Democrat. The sitting President, William McKinley, was a Republican. This was a problem for Hearst.

So, Hearst asked the best writers he could find to smear McKinley and bring him down. The gaudier, the better. In February 1900, a guy named Ambrose Bierce wrote a column and closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel.

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

In early 1901, an unsigned column (widely attributed to Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane) called McKinley a ‘bad man’ and declared:

If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.

The killing must be done. Six months later, McKinley was assassinated.

There’s no doubt – this is all very curious. Hearst was a massively influential man, he always got what he wanted, he printed an op-ed that called for the killing of the President, and then the President was killed.

But … no. I’m not accusing William Hearst of conspiring with Czolgosz (or others) to have McKinley killed. That’s not where I’m going with this, especially because I don’t want Hearst’s family to sue me for slander (even though that would be great fun and hilariously ironic).

Here’s where I’m going with this:

Words matter.

We live in a country where we can say and write what we want. It’s a great thing. But our words are not without consequence.

Was Czolgosz inspired by Hearst? Maybe, maybe not. But his newspapers certainly influenced the general public’s perception of McKinley. And perception can grow like a snowball, inciting anger and fear and a general sense of anxiety that is not always based in facts.

And all it takes is one person – a Czolgosz, a John Wilkes-Booth, a Lee Harvey Oswald – to turn that anger into something much worse.

And that brings me to Mr. T.

He said this two weeks ago:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Though the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

Can … can you just not say that?

Yes, he backtracked, he said he never meant to imply that people should, like, get out their guns and kill Hillary Clinton. But there are crazy people who will hear those words and legitimately think about doing that.

Hearst and Trump have a lot in common.

A desire to be in politics

And Trump, like Hearst, speaks to a massive audience. But please, use some discretion. Watch your language. THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING. And please don’t incite violence, because that never ends well.

One other thing.

September 5th, Labor Day, is the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release in the US.

And the day after that, September 6th, will be the 115-year anniversary of McKinley’s assassination.

The two events are hastily connected. Citizen Kane is loosely based off a guy who may or may not have inspired McKinley’s assassination.

But on those two days, let’s have a moment of silence. Not for remembrance. Not for recognition. But because sometimes it’s good to stay quiet.


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