Big Bill Taft An Underrated and Underappreciated President

20091102142403 (1)Historic Tidbit: William Howard Taft was a compassionate man. When one of his chief aides, Archibald Butt, was despondent over breaking-up with his girlfriend, Taft encouraged him to take a vacation to Europe, which he did. How did he proceed to return home: on the Titanic. Butt was not among the survivors.

One of my favorite Presidents, not in the area of accomplishments but for integrity, style, and a jovial, self-deprecating personality, is William Howard Taft. But as I hope to lay out, his 332 pounds was not the only thing that carried weight, as Taft’s achievements weren’t exactly skimpy either.

My romanticism for our nation’s 27th President is tempered by my concession that attributes and efforts cannot make up for achievements when it comes to the highest office in the land, nor should it. Taft can never rank with the President’s whose decisions shaped, and in some cases saved the nation and the world, such as Lincoln, Truman, JFK, and Teddy Roosevelt. But he is often scorned by historians as being mediocre and, while the times he presided over were relatively dormant, his contribution to society’s progress and advancement still bear fruit today.

“Big Bill Taft” as he was called, succeeded Teddy Roosevelt, who loved the limelight and whose “bully pulpit,” and “speak softly and carry a big stick” mantra made him suited for battle, as a “Rough Rider” and in the Presidency. Taft on the other hand wasn’t content to toot his own horn. So personalitywise, all agree Taft was no “Roosevelt-lite.” But he didn’t lack a sunny disposition. He was quite cheerful and policywise, the two were more closer than Roosevelt forces wanted to give him credit. The difference was he lacked a desire to hit hard and his stylistic focus was more on the Constitution.

That said, it would surprise no one in saying Taft never aspired to the office of the Presidency. Not even in his earliest days. His wife aspired enough for both of them and in marrying Taft, was not shy about choosing a man who would someday be President.” Many, including his own mother did not want him to be President and Taft actually said upon his inauguration, accompanied by heavy snow, that he “always said it would be a cold day when I got to be President.”

Still, Taft, born to a prominent Cincinnati family, was no stranger to political lineage. His father was an Ambassador and Attorney General under Grant. Taft’s talents and connections endeared him to a number of Presidents, which paved the way for the younger Taft’s meteoric rise. Among the positions he held: Collector of revenue under Arthur, Solicitor General under Harrison, Governor General of the Philippines under McKinley, and Secretary of War under TR. Taft’s heart even then was with the law, but he turned down two appointments for the Supreme Court. By 1908, the latter was grooming him as a successor, and he did so with the expectation that he would continue the “Square Deal’ agenda that had gained so much steam.

Philosophically, Taft had every intention of doing so. He even used the term “square” when dealing with Congress saying, “their actions had better be square.” But he was not a “Rough Rider” and would only push so far. His statement shortly before taking office that “the chief function of the next administration is to complete and perfect the machinery by which those standards may be maintained, by which the lawbreakers may be promptly maintained and punished, but which shall operate with sufficient accuracy and dispatch to interfere with legitimate business as little as possible” seemed to sum that up. But he also had great fidelity to the law (“the President can exercise no power which cannot fairly be traced to some specific grant of power in the Constitution or act of Congress”), and at times, he may have lacked the personal skills to reconcile the two. But that said, let’s look at the record, shall we?

Consider this. Taft advocated a Constitutional amendment implementing an income tax. He filed 90 anti-trust suits, far more than TR, and hammered railroad companies for seeking to raise rates 20% (Taft ultimately negotiated a compromise that was enforced by the Interstate Commerce Commission). Taft broke up the American Tobacco Trust as well as Standard Oil, and put his signature on the Mann-Elkins Act, which expanded prior law to put the telephone, telegraph, and cable companies under the ICC. He enacted a “national incorporation bureau for regulation and control of industrial enterprises doing interstate commerce When Attorney General George Wickersham said “probably 100 additional corporations would be called to account under the Sherman Act.” Taft biographer Jonathan Lurie said efforts to gain conservative support were “not strengthened.”

It didn’t stop there. Taft established the Federal Children’s Bureau and spoke of “conserving the public health by the enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act.” Postal savings and parcels were created. Lurie notes he fought for “workingmen’s compensation law” and an “age old retirement bill for government clerks.” enact a “national incorporation bureau for regulation and control of industrial enterprises doing interstate commerce.

On the latter, I pose the following who don’t consider that progressivism. Wouldn’t those programs be compared to Social Security and Medicare, programs true conservatives would later oppose? And seeking loans for Latin America. In more recent history, wouldn’t that jive with the Mexican bailout that many on the right have frowned on? He supported the removal of Joe Cannon as Speaker, who was loved by the conservatives.

Need more convincing? Taft’s commitment to Civil Rights was also unmistakable. He met with Booker T. Washington, and was in attendance for many public concerts started by his wife which were conducted by an African-American composer named Walter Loving (the band was called the Filipino Constabulary) which dated to his Philippine days. His appointment of Julia Lahrop to head the Children’s Bureau made her the first woman to head a federal agency.

On immigration, Taft vetoed a law restricting immigration that would impose literacy tests, and spoke powerfully and eloquently against anti-semitism as early as his inaugural address, in which he urged the Russian government to ease restrictions on making American Jews with passports liable to the same stringent requirements as the Russian people, saying “no humane government could look with favor on a member of the family of nations which permitted such acts within it’s borders.”

Taft had marvelous relations with the Jewish community from his boyhood days in Cincinnati, frequently visiting synagogues as President and becoming the first President to make an address from a temple lectern (though he erred by commenting on “the beautiful church”).

On foreign affairs, Taft advocated a muscular approach and Biography.com credits the terms “shirt sleeve diplomacy,” “open door policy,” and dollar diplomacy” as having taken shape during the Taft administration.

So how did Taft earn the ire of Roosevelt forces? Well, his handling of two high-profile episodes show that public relations was not his strong point. One was the “Payne-Aldrich” Act, which defined Taft’s first year. Taft had long advocated a lower tariff, a cause the progressives agreed and the first time the issue was touched since the Hayes Presidency. But when the Republican Congress sent him one with many modifications, and a reduction far less than he had advocated, Taft grumbled but didn’t veto it, He believed it to be the best possible measure Congress could produce, which, in the print age, didn’t go over well.

The second, far less benign development involved the Gilbert Pinchot matter. Taft’s initial appointment of Richard Ballinger as Interior Secretary infuriated Roosevelt allies, who had hoped he keep James Garfield’s son in the position. Ballinger had been Mayor of Seattle and his relationship with unions were troublesome. But it was Ballinger’s sanctioning of Gilbert Pinchot, a Roosevelt confidant and head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry that really stoked the fire. Ballinger found had breached procedural protocol in many designations of federal lands.

William Ridings in his book, “Rating The Presidents,” noted that it was Taft “who developed legal procedures for setting aside land conservation” (71.5 million acres)and that “Taft failed to trumpet his positive record for conservation, which in many ways surpassed Roosevelt’s.” And as his Ballinger’s replacement, Taft named Walt Fisher, largely considered to be a progressive as Interior Secretary. But Progressives were furious at Pinchot’s firing, and for them, that was the storyline, notwithstanding the fact that he appointed a number of progressives to many other posts (Henry Stimson as War Secretary for example).

The bottom line: Taft, accidentally or otherwise, embraced the view, as stated by Lurie bio that “the day had passed when it was clearly obvious that the least government was the best government. The duty of government to protect the weaker class by ‘positive’ law was now recognized.”

But that didn’t assuage Roosevelt loyalists nor ultimately, the former President himself. TR, who during Taft’s first year largely stayed out of the way (an African exhibition kept him busy), was harshly critical of his predecessor in later years. He accused him of abandoning Roosevelt principles, and decided he wanted to reclaim his old job in 1912.

Most thought Taft would’ve been all too happy to forego re-election but, not wanting Roosevelt to win, sought re-election as a Republican. Roosevelt of course formed the “Bull Moose” party, splitting the GOP, enabling Woodrow Wilson to take the Presidency. Taft took just two states — Utah and Vermont, but he was more despondent from his scars of the TR feud. On a train car before Election Day, Taft said Roosevelt was “his best friend” and began crying.

It was thought that Roosevelt and Taft, each realizing their likelihood of winning was non-existent, both saw Wilson as the superior alternative. The feud lingered until the pair had a chance meeting at a restaurant in 1918 and exchanged hugs amid cheering onlookers.

The ironic thing about Taft was that he often did take his case to the people. He travelled the country making countless speeches. But in an age of limited communication, that’s wasn’t enough. After the tariff imbroglio, he knew as much, acknowledging he was “carefully putting off those speeches from day to day.”

If Taft had assumed office in 2009 and not 1909 (assuming he only had to deal with the problems of his time), he may have been better able to shape public opinion. Print journalism may not have been enough for him to make his case, although admittedly, not making himself or members of his administration available to the press was a detriment he caused himself. But in the age of a 24 hour media, that might not have been enough.

WhiteHouse.gov called Taft “a distinguished jurist, effective administrator, but poor politician.” He was not a campaigner, once calling the trail “the loneliest four months of my life (imagine a modern-day two year cycle).

The other side of Taft’s under-rated legacy was his personality, which was almost as large as the man himself. Roosevelt called him the “most lovable personality I have ever known” and few who knew him disagreed.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Taft was his self-belittling sense of humor. Roosevelt called him “the most lovable personality I have ever known.” Quite often, his jocularity had to do with his weight. Called “Big Lub,” Taft once got stuck in the White House bathtub. Nellie had a new one built and that famous picture exist of four Mott Company workers sitting in it. Taft once sent a cable “large party in Hicksville waiting to catch a train.” Another time Taft said he yielded his seat on a street-car and “three ladies got in.”Once while vacationing, friends suggested they go swimming in the ocean to which another replied, “the President is using it.”

The most famous example is perhaps a telegram he sent to to Secretary of War Elihu Root, saying he felt great after having gone horseback riding. Root’s reply; “how is the horse?” Friends often worried about his health but Taft actually outlived adventurous TR and the fit Wilson in years and in age.

Taft also proved his common touch in other ways. He kept cows on the White House lawn for hos own milk (one was named Pauline), started the tradition of throwing out the first baseball on opening day and became the first President to regularly use an automobile. But he was also the first President to take up golf, which did little to help his image. And many of his acquaintances

Of course, eight years after his Presidency ended, Taft was able to fulfill his dream of serving on the Supreme Court (as a footnote, his relationship with colleague Louis Brandeis, who had fiercely questioned Ballinger over the Pinchot matter, was frosty if not tension filled). He said upon his resignation in 1930 that they were the happiest nine years of his life.” Two months later, he was dead at 72. And while historians may be at odds over his record, even his offspring yields few clues. His most famous became a very conservative Senator from Ohio who tried three times to get the Presidential nomination. His youngest son by contrast supported a number of initiatives by FDR.

So how should history treat Taft? He once said ‘I don’t remember that I ever was President,” a reference to the fact that his love was the court. But Jefferson designed his own tombstone and made no reference to the fact that he was President, and that certainly cannot be forgotten. The New York Sun said “the name of President Taft will stand in the list of those Presidents…who served this country far better and more wisely than the people could see..” The New York World said Taft ‘has not awakened much enthusiasm, but he has created little antagonism.”

It seems likely that Big Bill Taft, who sought to establish a “policy of harmony” with Congress would have little use for the political rancor today. Would he have the skills to change it? No? Neither would TR for that matter. But be would bemoan the partisanship. And that said, we could surely use a little of the wisdom of “Big Bill Taft.”

Author: SCOTT CRASS

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