Rethinking Taft


Completing Doris Kearns Goodwin's hefty masterpiece, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism," I felt I was bidding farewell to a dear friend. So rich is her narrative, so compelling the characters, that along with a tremendous sense of satisfaction from a job well done -- hers and mine -- I marveled at my new understanding of President William Taft. He is considered a generally unsuccessful president, but he was undoubtedly a kind soul. As I flipped through the 150 pages of endnotes that followed, I ruefully accepted that the complexity -- and the genuine goodness -- of a person are often shortchanged through the process of historical shorthand.

In many history textbooks, you'll find obligatory anecdotes about the size of the White House bathtub and tidbits about Taft's life-long struggles with his weight. Perhaps anyone taking office after Teddy Roosevelt would inevitably have paled in comparison to the fiery Bull Moose. But as a former history teacher, I feel I failed President Taft. His many talents have been lost to time's tendency to simplify and reduce.

Taft certainly was not adroit or comfortable cajoling and browbeating Congressmen to pass his legislative agenda. But he brought many more anti-trust suits than his progressive Republican predecessor, Roosevelt -- the "Great Trust-Buster." Taft's inability to woo the media as effectively as Roosevelt, coupled with several high-profile strategic missteps, overshadowed his impressive legacy of public service. But, he came to the presidency with a stellar track record.

Although he opposed the United States' expansionism in the Philippines, President McKinley eventually persuaded Taft that the region needed his skills. In short order he progressed from highly-effective president of the commission overseeing the Philippines, to much-beloved Governor General. Kearns Goodwin recounts how Taft and his wife Nellie mastered the complicated national dance -- the rigodon -- which required both grace and stateliness. Taft's surprisingly agile dancing was a smash hit and a highly visible example of his love for his adopted culture. When he returned to the Philippines years later, Taft was welcomed "home" by throngs of supporters of all classes. He confided to family it pleased him enormously to connect to all Filipinos, regardless of social and economic status.

Just as Taft cultivated the trust and respect of the Filipino people, similarly did he instill confidence when he served under Teddy Roosevelt. At the beginning of Roosevelt's second term, the president embarked on a two-month vacation. (Can you imagine? We excoriate President Obama for a long weekend on Martha's Vineyard!) While away from the White House, Roosevelt left Taft in charge of the duties of both the Secretary of War and Secretary of State, as Secretary John Hay was ill. Roosevelt reassured reporters: "Oh, things will be all right. I have left Taft sitting on the lid." Good old dependable Will Taft could serve as "acting President." Indeed, the press seems to have entirely ignored Vice President Charles Fairbanks.

Unlike Roosevelt, who was socially awkward and had difficulty making friends in college, Taft had many admirers. His classmates called him "Big Bill," and Kearns Goodwin reports, "(h)is affable disposition and genial companionship with students of all backgrounds combined to make him the most popular man in the freshman class." One friend remarked that to watch Taft stride across the campus was to "take a fresh hold on life." Another classmate of Taft's, Herbert Bowen, recalled that Taft was the most admired and respected student at the college. Many students sought his counsel and his company; this continued throughout his life.

His charisma and thoughtfulness made him a trusted leader, but Taft never desired a life in politics. Kearns Goodwin builds a strong case that Taft desperately sought approval: first from his parents, then from his wife. He subsequently made career decisions that often went against both his heart's desires and his basic nature. He had no affection for the rough and tumble -- often dirty and mean -- world of party politics. His greatest, most enduring desire was to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And although he did finally attain this most coveted position after he left the Presidency, Taft had turned down the appointment several times before. He felt a powerful duty to complete other projects -- like his complex work in the Philippines. His letters reveal his fervent feeling that he could not abandon the Filipinos at that critical time in their journey for self-determination.

Throughout his life, Taft's character was one of honor, integrity and dependability. But there was also a formidable resolve that surprised me, as he clawed back from several major hardships. Will Taft's beloved spouse suffered a severe stroke within three months of his inauguration; Nellie never fully regained her communication abilities. Taft also endured nasty public attacks by his former pal and colleague, Teddy Roosevelt, when Roosevelt broke his word and ran against Taft to seek a third term. And then Taft lost his most trusted advisor and dear friend, Archie Butts -- in the midst of a vicious primary season -- when Butts died on the Titanic. The loss devastated Taft.

Even just one intense hardship could scuttle one's success and shatter any remaining confidence. And yet, Will Taft was driven by a profound sense of duty to his country and obligation to his family. He never wavered in his commitment to his job, which he considered a tremendous honor. Although he certainly was not the most dexterous executive in the oval office, he was one of the most genuine. As we gear up for yet another bruising, arduous presidential primary marathon, I'm grateful to Kearns Goodwin for reminding me to look for the true public servants in the field.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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