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Mt. McKinley to Denali: How A Mountain's Renaming Got Tied Up in Politics

Alaskans have been advocating for a return to Denali for years. But Ohioans, who helped deliver the presidency to Obama in 2008 and 2012, pushed back.
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If a president is going to risk angering Ohio, it probably makes sense to hold off until after Election Day.

That may be one reason President Obama waited until now to rename America's tallest mountain. Mount McKinley — the name given a century ago in honor of Republican President William McKinley, a native Buckeye who was assassinated in 1901 — will now be known as Denali, or "the high one" in the language of Alaska's indigenous Athabascan people.

The move is rooted in Obama's 2008 campaign, when he promised to improve relations with Native Americans, a key Democratic constituency. Alaskan tribes have been advocating for a return to Denali for decades. But Ohioans — who helped deliver the presidency to Obama in 2008 and 2012 — pushed back, saying it would be an insult to McKinley's political legacy.

But on Sunday, perhaps freed from the need to avoid upsetting voters and leaders in a crucial swing state, Obama approved the renaming, officially recognizing "the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska natives," the White House said in a statement.

Ohio Republicans lashed out.

"I’m deeply disappointed in this decision,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

Boehner cited McKinley's service in the Civil War, in Congress, as Ohio governor and as the 25th president.

Sen. Rob Portman accused Obama of "going around Congress." But he seemed resigned to the renaming.

"I now urge the administration to work with me to find alternative ways to preserve McKinley's legacy somewhere else in the national park that once bore his name."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, also said Obama had acted outside his authority.

Rep. Bob Gibbs vowed to find a way to block what he called "Constitutional overreach" and a "political stunt" that was "insulting to all Ohioans."

Republican strategist Karl Rove, meanwhile, apparently used the event to remind readers about his forthcoming book about McKinley.

But in her order making the name change official, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell pointed out that "President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska."

The renaming was made on the eve of Obama's trip to Alaska, meant to call attention to climate change. The two issues are unrelated, but they potentially give Alaskans another reason to welcome him warmly.

The mountain — whose official height is 20,322 feet, though new measurements may lower that a bit — has been called Denali for centuries by native Alaskans.

A gold prospector named it McKinley in 1896, while the Ohio Republican was still campaigning for the White House. The name was formally recognized by the federal government in 1917, 16 years after his death.

The area that surrounds the mountain was named for McKinley as well, but in 1980 it was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Kimberly Kenney, curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, acknowledged that the circumstances made it difficult to argue for keeping the mountain's presidential name.

"McKinley didn't see it, didn't travel there, didn't do anything for the people of Alaska — it wasn't a state yet," Kenney said.

Nevertheless, the fact that a mountain was named for a native son remained a "matter of pride" for the people of Ohio.

Kenney said she hoped that the debate would encourage Americans to learn more about McKinley, who doesn't get discussed as much as he should.

She pointed out what she saw as McKinley's most lasting contribution to American history: a victory in the Spanish-American War, which established the United States as a world power and set the tone for future military campaigns in foreign countries, from Korea and Vietnam to the Middle East.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that the Department of the Interior would work with leaders in Ohio "to find the appropriate way to acknowledge President McKinley's contribution."