Editor’s note: This is the twenty-seventh entry in the writer’s year-long project to read one book about each of the U.S. Presidents in the year prior to Election Day 2016. You can also follow Marcus’ progress at the Twitter account and with this .
Poor William Howard Taft.
All this gentle giant of a man ever wanted was to be a Supreme Court justice. He got there eventually, appointed to Chief Justice by Warren G. Harding in 1921.
But first, he was put through the wringer of presidential politics, which was just as nasty then as it is now.
Reading Doris K. Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, one can’t help but think that Taft was bullied into the White House by two people close to him: his wife and Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s a brutal book for him, not least because it doesn’t grant our largest president that Supreme Court happy ending. (I had to find that out in a subsequent biography, on Warren G Harding, who swore Taft into the court.)
The excellent, thorough Pulpit doesn’t focus solely on Taft, but on his relationship with Roosevelt as well as the rise, fall, and influence on a group of terrific journalists who wrote for McClure’s, a groundbreaking magazine in the early 20th Century.
Taft-era admin official on journalists who accused him of corruption: “literary apostles of vomit”
44 in 52 (@44in52) June 29, 2016
Save for some extended stretches where Taft disappears from the book (mostly while he was serving as head of the new civilian government in the Philippines), the book is a fantastic read, and it’s great to finally get a Doris Kearns Goodwin book into this project.
It paired nicely with a mini-vacation, and I am still on schedule to finish this series by election day. (Bully! Ed.)
The most fascinating aspect of Taft’s presidency, though, for me was his relationship with his wife, Helen Taft, who was as much a power behind Taft’s rise to the presidency as TR was.
A politically-involved woman from Cincinnati, Nellie, as she was called, took great interest in the issues of the day. She was reluctant to see Taft “settle” into a life in the judiciary though that’s what he seemed to love the most.
The story of Nellie Taft seems more interesting than her husband. And more tragic given her stroke.
44 in 52 (@44in52) June 29, 2016
Nellie was not just a companion but a critical advisor for Taft. She lent advice, was active in his campaigns. Like her husband, she came to love her time in the Philippines. She liked Roosevelt, who had appointed Taft as his Secretary of War. And she pressured her husband to further his political career. She thought the court a boring life.
Stuck in the Philippines, Taft had to turn down multiple offers from TR to appoint him to the Supreme Court. When he returned, instead, Roosevelt hand-picked Taft as his successor.
But just months after Taft’s inauguration, Nellie suffered a debilitating stroke. Years of frustration, and a relapse or two, followed. Taft looked after her, but essentially was stuck in the Oval Office without his closest advisor.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt became increasingly unhappy with his successor’s work and what he saw as abandonment of everything he, the great TR, had strove for.
Roosevelt turned on Taft in the press and at the polls. Eventually he ran against Taft in the 1912 election as a third party candidate (The Bull Moose party). And both TR and Taft lost to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.
The frienemies situation between Taft and TR is nuts. Taft bumbled and TR’s ego got in the way.
44 in 52 (@44in52) June 30, 2016
The real problem: Taft wasn’t the force of nature that TR was. He couldn’t navigate the muckrakers of the press like Roosevelt could. (Tellingly, the journalism thread of the book has less to do with Taft than with TR.)
And his personality didn’t pound people into submission the way Roosevelt could. Taft just seemed like too nice of a guy for the job.
There are a number of salient points here in the wake of this year’s epic and ridiculous primary season. It was during the 1912 race that open primaries that is, giving delegate selection for the convention over to the voters first came into play. It was TR who pressed for the move.
Some states held primaries Others remain closed, with party leaders selecting delegates. For Taft and TR, it was just one more thing that deepened their divide.
A bitter, contested convention after near-violent primaries and fights over delegates. 2016 but also 1912.
44 in 52 (@44in52) July 1, 2016
Taft dominated the state’s where the party selected the delegates while TR did well in the (new) popular vote primary states
44 in 52 (@44in52) July 1, 2016
There’s a wonderful photo of Taft greeting Woodrow Wilson on Inauguration Day 1913 as Taft hands off the reigns of the country. It’s not that two former opponents from opposing parties are sharing a warm moment that stays with me; it’s the sheer joy on Taft’s face as he’s finally able to shed himself of the burdens of a job he was reluctant to take on in the first place.
If that’s not a face that says, “Good luck sucker, I’m out of here,” I don’t know what is.
Eventually, Taft and Roosevelt had something resembling a lukewarm reconciliation. Though Nellie never fully recovered from her strokes, she recovered enough to remain politically active.
And, as for Taft, he finally got what he wanted: in the summer of 1921, then-president Warren G. Harding appointed Taft to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Taft would stay there until resigning in February 1930 due to declining health. He would die a month later. Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see Taft’s ascent, having died in 1919, heartbroken over the deaths of one of his sons in World War I.
But the two presidents were forever intertwined, for better and for worse. We haven’t seen anything quite like their relationship in the White House and over it since.
Days to read Washington: 16
Days to read Adams: 11
Days to read Jefferson: 10
Days to read Madison: 13
Days to read Monroe: 6
Days to read J. Q. Adams: 10
Days to read Jackson: 11
Days to read Van Buren: 9
Days to read Harrison: 6
Days to read Tyler: 3
Days to read Polk: 8
Days to read Taylor: 8
Days to read Fillmore: 14
Days to read Pierce: 1
Days to read Buchanan: 1
Days to read Lincoln: 12
Days to read Johnson: 8
Days to read Grant: 27
Days to read Hayes: 1
Days to read Garfield: 3
Days to read Arthur: 17
Days to hear Cleveland: 3
Days to read Harrison: 4
Days to read McKinley: 5
*Days to read T. Roosevelt: 15
*Days to read Taft: 13
Days behind schedule: 0
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