Ohio Versus Alaska: Making a Mountain Out of a Mountain

Mt. McKinley or Denali
Photo by Jim Shives, National Park Service; Denali National Park

Ohio Vs. Alaska: Making a Mountain Out of a Mountain
| published August 31, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

The mountain rises 20,320 feet above pristine Alaska wilderness. At that height, it is the tallest peak in all of North and Central America. It is also famously difficult to climb, even by seasoned pros of adventure. Capped by year-round snow and almost always beset by powerful arctic winds, a hike up this mountain is not for the faint-of-heart, or for the thin-skinned.

The mountain is also now at the center of controversy.

Sometimes it seems almost everything these days is reason enough for contentious squabbling and partisan fistfights. Flags are taken down, then re-hoisted, then taken down again; buildings must be renamed in keeping with the politically-correct ethos of the day; entire schools must toss out insensitive mascots in favor of neutral incarnations. Everyone, it seems, has become thin-skinned.

Even impassive and largely immovable mountains can fall victim to the wrangling. Never mind that the mountains have stood for eons, subject only to the tectonic forces of moving earth, and the dynamic effects of pelting rain and melting snows, their stoic and stark beauty unmoved by the minor goings-on of a few hundred legislators and a few political groups.

President Barack Obama wants to make an historic voyage to the arctic regions in conjunction with deep discussions about climate change and oil exploration—two issues as linked at the hip as they are worlds apart. Glaciers, once in formidable forward movement, now retreat, and The President wants to take a firsthand look.

Along the way, Obama will also hear from people about copper mines, gold mines, hunting rights, salmon fishing, drilling by BP and Shell and Exxon, bridges and roads, developers, cell phone towers, sugary soft drinks, and umpteen other odds and ends which cause regular folk to show up at public meetings to express general outrage at…outrageous things. The President will also add some photo ops: hiking, boat tours, and the taping of a TV show for NBC.

Vast tracts of the western United States, much of it once covered in melting snow, splotched with lush waters and lined with streams, now parch in the heat of a more-or-less permanent drought. Dire predictions of a coming ice age (remember the 1970s and 80s?) have been replaced with equally dire models showing a superheated planet. Each hottest summer on record is followed by…yes, you guessed it…another long, hard winter of record-breaking cold, unprecedented ice, and more snow than anyone in a generation can recall.

Black bears now swim in backyard pools, deer now eat the daisies and daffodils, foxes romp with the housecats, and moose (is it mooses, or moose?) routinely wander into gift shops and vegetarian restaurants.

The animals don’t care. Humans are too busy shooting each other to shoot at them. Besides, videos of tourists taunting bears with Big Macs and alligators biting the bumpers off police cars are too hilarious to resist. When it comes to mountains, what difference does it make?

Big political meetings, often called (in this case ironically) summits, are sometimes preceded by bold political moves. So in advance of his travels to Alaska and the desolate Arctic, the President tells the public that it is time to rename Mount McKinley—the 20,230 foot high hulk of a mountain thus named in 1896—as a newly rechristened Mount Denali, after the more ancient native American/native Alaskan moniker for the impressive mountain.

The mountain doesn’t care. Its existence precedes human concerns or interventions. But the outrage is instantaneous.

The President wants to purge from the peak the name of William McKinley, a Republican President, and return the name of the mountain to its native term, Denali, which means “The High One” or “The Tall One” in the Athabascan language. Many Alaskans—native and non-native alike—already call the mountain Denali, in reference not only to the native name, but also to the huge National Park—one of the largest in America. It’s more a matter of convenience. The fight over the name goes back roughly 40 years, when local politicians and native groups began the push to roll back the name to its earliest moniker.

Legend holds that the park was named by an explorer and gold prospector who had, days earlier, heard the news that Ohio’s William McKinley had secured the Republican nomination in 1896, beating out Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, Levi P. Morton of New York, and Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania. How and why a prospector was anointed the power to name mountains is not clear in those history books. But McKinley was an ardent supporter of the gold standard, which the prospector considered a sacred issue.

McKinley’s nomination was never even close, and he not only clobbered the other GOP candidates that year on the first ballot, but he may have ushered-in the practice of big-spending by candidates. One of his top handlers, Mark Hanna, a businessman with an early eye for networking and “social media” (in those days, "letters" and "telegrams") took over fundraising for McKinley. Hanna and his rather large team of donation-seekers raised an unprecedented $3.5 million on behalf of the McKinley ticket—measured by today’s dollar something on the order of $3.4 billion—a veritable mountain of cash.

Keep that number in mind the next time you hear someone of CBS or ABC or MSNBC talk of big spending by Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Donald Trump. In the fall of 1896, McKinley outspent the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, by more than five-to-one. In adjusted dollars, the McKinley campaign spent more money than any Presidential election in U.S. history, and that includes the elections of 2008 and 2012. McKinley also singlehandedly realigned the map by forging what U.S. historians call “The Fourth Party Template,” or the Fourth Party System, the two-party-dominated business of Republicans and Democrats we have come to know and love and hate in equal parts.  That system persists to this day despite the best efforts of folks like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot.

Does this explain the sudden outburst of contentiousness and fist-fighting over the name of that majestic mountain? Hardly. But Ohioans are outraged, and in the legislature—which is a mere 3,940 mile drive by car just to get to Anchorage—they are calling Obama a stinker and a hooligan and a poopyhead for tinkering with history. Obama—who will inspect permafrost and sea ice and polar bear habitats—defends the decision by saying it’s time to move on, which is to say move backward, and rename the majestic mountain what those pre-Columbian natives called it, Denali. Which prompted one comedian to take it further: why not name it what those pre-pre-Columbian people called it as they trekked across the Bering land bridge: Mount We-Came-All-The-Way-From-Mongolia-And-Siberia-To-Cross-This-Damned-Thing?

Obama said he was making the name-change after years of discussions and lobbying by Alaska lawmakers and the state’s governor, Bill Walker, an Independent. In fact, the decision was announced by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“With our own sense of reverence for this place,” Jewell said at a press conference, “we are officially renaming the mountain Denali.”

U.S. Representative Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) called the renaming of the mountain a “political stunt,” and vowed to fight it in the halls of Washington, especially in the House Committee on Natural Resources. John Boehner, another Ohioan, also expressed dismay at the decision.

Democrats rallied around the President, reminding people that McKinley never traveled to Alaska, and was a big-spending fat-cat corporate Republican to boot. Republicans pointed out that Marilyn Lovell—wife of astronaut Jim Lovell—never traveled to the moon, but she got a mountain named after her anyway.

Opponents of the name-change say it represents constitutional overreach by Obama. Supporters of the name change say it rights a very old wrong. Ohioans say the mountain was rightly named for a great U.S. President, while native Alaskans say it was named for their reverence to its height and majesty. The planet warms, the planet cools, and the tallest mountain in the American hemisphere shrugs its heavy shoulders.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Road Trip on Three Continents; Thursday Review staff ; Thursday Review; April 11, 2015.

What's In A Name?; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; June 27,2014.