February Books 22) William Howard Taft & 23) 1912

22) William Howard Taft: A Conservative’s Conception of the Presidency, by Donald F. Anderson (.co.uk, .com)
23) 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs – the Election That Changed the Country, by James Chace (.co.uk, .com)

The last president whose biography I read was John Adams, who shares with Taft the distinction of running for re-election and coming third, which is difficult in a two-party system. (In Adams’ case, of course, the voting system was different, and he really came second behind the Jefferson/Burr ticket.) Neither Adams nor Taft had an especially distinguished presidency, but sometimes failure can have more lessons than success.

Taft did not especially want to be President anyway. It is striking that of the many photographs of him in these two books, the one in which he looks happiest – indeed, is beaming joyfully – was taken on 4 March 1913 as he handed over the White House to Woodrow Wilson. Hand-picked by Theodore Roosevelt as his successor, he lacked the basic political skills to survive – his only previous elected office was a judicial post in his native Ohio, and his experience of executive government, running America’s newly acquired Philippines colony, gave him no taste of dealing with other political leaders.

Once Roosevelt had lost patience with Taft, he contested the Republican nomination for the 1912 election and was basically cheated out of it by Taft’s supporters. He then broke from his own party and ran on a far more left-wing ticket than any major candidate before or since. Taft was crushed in the election and won only two states, Utah and Vermont. The Republican party, which had won eleven of the previous thirteen presidential elections, won only three of the next ten.

Anderson’s book (published in 1968) is a decent enough dissection of Taft’s character and mistakes, but I had hoped for a bit more of a human dimension. Chace’s book, published just after his own death in 2004, has loads of human interest – it starts with Taft weeping at Roosevelt’s graveside in 1919 – and I particularly learnt from it about the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, but it was curiously unfocussed, and poorly edited in places.

Both books, however agreed on the two incidents in Taft’s presidency which particularly drove Roosevelt to feel that his legacy had been betrayed: the first being a public row between Taft’s Secretary of the Interior and the head of the Forestry Service who had been appointed by Roosevelt; and the second a move to reverse an industrial merger which had been approved several years earlier by Roosevelt. Crucial in advising Taft badly in the first case, and actually taking the steps which so offended Roosevelt in the second, was Taft’s attorney-general, George W. Wickersham, a New York corporate lawyer memorably described as having the political sensitivity of an ox. His younger sister was my great-grandmother.

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