Big Bill Taft

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Although he was not there, his mother, his Aunt Delia, and two of his brothers gathered in New York City early in January, 1903. and, after due deliberation, drafted a report: William Howard Taft was to be President of the United States.

For two reasons this was a remarkable, if not amazing, decision. First, the occupant of the White House at the moment was Theodore Roosevelt, who showed no disposition to move out for another six years to accommodate William Howard Taft or anyone else; and second. William Howard Taft did not want to be President.

From the time Will Taft was a child his family never had any doubt that its honor and destiny were bound up in him. When he grew up and married, his wife was equally determined that TaIt would be President. Mrs. Taft, the former Helen Herron, was a bright, attractive girl, but she had a stubborn mouth. Moreover, she was reserved and literary, and didn’t make friends easily. As with everything that Mrs. Taft put her mind to, her ambition for her husband was not arrived at frivolously. “Nellie,” as she was called, knew the White House well. Her father had been a college classmate of Benjamin Harrison’s and the law partner of Rutherford B. Haves; her mother was the daughter and sister of congressmen. At the age of seventeen, while the houseguest of President and Mrs. Hayes, Nellie announced that she was so taken with the White House that she would marry someone destined to be President.

But William Howard Taft, the man in whom all family ambition centered, was hardly a piece of putty to be manipulated by petticoat politicians. His path to the White House was paved with greater public service than that of any President since Martin Van Buren. If one were to plot Taft’s career on a graph, the line would rise sharply and steeply, without a single dip, until it marked the summit of American political life.

He became assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County. Ohio, at the age of twenty-three. Collector of Internal Revenue in Cincinnati two years later, judge of the state superior court at twenty-nine. Solicitor General of the United States at thirty-two, a federal circuit-court judge at thirty-four, first U.S. Civil Governor of the Philippines at forty-two, Secretary of War in the Cabinet of Theodore Roosevelt at forty-six, and President of the United States at fifty-one. Each job seemed to be a logical outgrowth of the one before; each new opportunity seemed only to await the successful conclusion of the preceding episode.

The man who possessed this impressive public record was tall and round, with a ruddy complexion, a blondish mustache, and dark hair. His legs seemed too short for his torso. His weight sometimes climbed to over 325 pounds. Yet despite this great bulk he was light on his feet and a nimble dancer. He was also quick to joke about his generous proportions. When offered the Kent Chair of Constitutional Law at Yale he replied that it would be inadequate but that “a Sofa of Law” might be all right. Then Taft probably chuckled a rapturous, subterranean, incomparable chuckle: “the most infectious chuckle in the history of politics,” wrote his biographer, Henry F. Pringle. Said the wife of a Texas congressman, “It reminded me of the cluck a whippoorwill gives, a laugh to himself, when he has been whistling with special vim and mischief.”

The popular image of the jolly fat man fooled many into believing that Taft’s core was of petroleum jelly rather than tempered steel. William Allen White, the perceptive Kansas editor, knew otherwise. Once after having crossed Taft, White described the “eye behind his smile veiling … almost the hint of a serpentine glitter.” And T. R., while they were still friends, said that Taft was “one of the best haters” he had ever known.

On the day in 1890 that Will Taft came to Washington to be sworn in as Solicitor General, he was visited by William M. Evarts, distinguished senator from New York and leader of the American bar. “Mr. Taft,” said the Senator, “I knew your father … I valued his friendship very highly.” Evarts went on to say that he was presuming on this friendship to ask Taft to a dinner party that evening at which he was short one man. So the young lawyer ended his first day in the capital by dining between Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge and Mrs. John Hay, neither of whom had the faintest clue as to who he was. Even after Taft became Secretary of War he frankly replied to an interviewer who asked him to explain his rapid political ascent, “I got my political pull, first, through father’s prominence. …”

The father whose name opened brass-plated doors was Alphonse Taft, dour and industrious Yankee, and holder at various times in a long public career of such illustrious positions as Secretary of War, Attorney General of the United States, and Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary and to Russia.