Obama Renamed Mount McKinley. Ohio Isn’t Happy.

Ralph Regula spent years in Congress protecting the memory of the Buckeye State’s native son. Now he worries Obama might change the name of the Ohio River, too.

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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 31, 2015, 3:27 p.m.

There may have been cheer­ing in Alaska when the White House de­clared that the tallest peak in North Amer­ica will re­vert back to its nat­ive name of Mount Denali after more than a cen­tury of be­ing known as Mount McKin­ley. But on a small farm out­side Massil­lon, Ohio, the an­nounce­ment brought an­ger from the one man who had staved off that re-nam­ing for dec­ades.

Ral­ph S. Reg­ula, a proud night-school gradu­ate of the Wil­li­am McKin­ley School of Law in Can­ton, rep­res­en­ted McKin­ley’s home turf in North­east Ohio for 36 years be­fore his re­tire­ment in 2009, amass­ing sig­ni­fic­ant clout as one of the “car­din­als” on the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee. Year after year, he used some of that in­flu­ence to keep the name of Can­ton’s most fam­ous son on that moun­tain in Alaska.

Monday, he was dis­mayed at the pres­id­ent’s an­nounce­ment on his way to a three-day vis­it to the 49th State. “It’s a polit­ic­al stunt,” snapped Reg­ula, now 90, dur­ing a phone in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al. “If he’s ser­i­ous about it, I would think he would at least vis­it Mount McKin­ley. He’s go­ing to be there three days and he’s not even go­ing near the place.”

Reg­ula was not alone in his an­ger among past and present Ohio politi­cians, some of whom grumbled privately that Obama would not have taken this step while he was so ar­dently woo­ing Ohio voters and their pre­cious 18 elect­or­al votes.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, blas­ted the pres­id­ent in an all-caps state­ment in which he said, “This polit­ic­al stunt is in­sult­ing to all Ohioans. And I will be work­ing with the House Com­mit­tee on Nat­ur­al Re­sources to de­term­ine what can be done to pre­vent this ac­tion.” Speak­er John Boehner said he was “deeply dis­ap­poin­ted in this de­cision.” In a state­ment, he cited McKin­ley’s ser­vice dur­ing the Civil War and his “great leg­acy” as pres­id­ent and as gov­ernor of Ohio. Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, also said he was “dis­ap­poin­ted” with the de­cision, ac­cus­ing the pres­id­ent of over-step­ping his au­thor­ity. It is, he said, “yet an­oth­er ex­ample of the pres­id­ent go­ing around Con­gress.”

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tim Ry­an, D-Ohio, who rep­res­ents McKin­ley’s birth­place in Niles, Ohio, also had been a cham­pi­on of McKin­ley in­side Con­gress. Once Reg­ula left the House, Ry­an stepped in­to the void and in­tro­duced the bill every year to block any re­nam­ing. “We must re­tain this na­tion­al land­mark’s name in or­der to hon­or the leg­acy of this great Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent and pat­ri­ot,” he said.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for pres­id­ent, also tweeted his in­dig­na­tion, stat­ing that the pres­id­ent “once again over­steps his bounds.” He at­tached sev­er­al para­graphs telling the tale of how McKin­ley was as­sas­sin­ated in 1901 only mo­ments after he gave away the “lucky” red carna­tion he wore in his lapel every day. McKin­ley did that be­cause his dis­trict in­cluded Al­li­ance, the city where the red carna­tion was first de­veloped in the United States. “Ohio knows,” said Kasich, “every carna­tion is a monu­ment to our own Wil­li­am McKin­ley.”

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sher­rod Brown offered cau­tious sup­port for the pres­id­ent’s ac­tion. But he was quick to couple that with praise for McKin­ley, whom he called “a great Ohioan.” He said that “streets and schools throughout the Mid­w­est bear testi­mony to his leg­acy.” He prom­ised to work with the ad­min­is­tra­tion “to en­sure that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Amer­ic­ans are aware of McKin­ley’s leg­acy.”

But it is back on that small farm in Ohio where the rev­er­ence for McKin­ley is the greatest and the an­ger today is greatest. Reg­ula – who of­ten handed out carna­tions in memory of the slain pres­id­ent — had been fo­cused on which head of Here­ford cattle his grand­chil­dren would take to the county fair when the calls from re­port­ers star­ted com­ing early Monday. He even laugh­ingly talked about com­ing out of re­tire­ment. “I could prob­ably block it again if I were in,” he said. “I did it for years and years and years.”

He ac­cused the pres­id­ent of be­ing “con­fused” about his role. “He thinks with an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der he can change the law,” said the former con­gress­man. “But you can’t change the law with an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der. Only Con­gress can do that.” The White House coun­ters that the sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or already has suf­fi­cient leg­al au­thor­ity to make the change without con­gress.

Un­per­suaded, Reg­ula warned Obama may not be fin­ished. “If they do this to a highly re­garded, highly re­spec­ted pres­id­ent like McKin­ley… are they go­ing to go around the United States and change every land­mark named after some­body?” And he sug­ges­ted Obama may still have Ohio in his sights. “What’s he go­ing to change next? Is he go­ing to re­name the Ohio River be­cause it is named after the state of Ohio even though it goes through a lot of dif­fer­ent states?”

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