Big Bill Taft


The Filipinos had lived under colonial rule since 1565, but never had they known an outsider quite like this first American viceroy. He made it clear from the start that color lines would not be tolerated at his social functions. The proud natives could almost feel his innate sympathy: he appointed them to high office, could be seen enjoying himself at their cockfights and concerts, even toured the remote interior where headhunters were still known to exist.

More tangibly, Taft achieved tax revisions, established municipal governments in many communities, put through harbor and other public improvements, increased educational facilities, instituted a civil service, and reformed land distribution and the judiciary. All this was performed in a tropical climate that was considered murderous to foreigners of much trimmer proportions. During his three years in the Philippines, Taft suffered from dengue fever and amoebic dysentery and underwent three operations for abscesses.

In 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt was Vice President and had a great deal of time on his hands, he wrote an article for The Outlook entitled “Governor William H. Taft.” It began: “A year ago a man of wide acquaintance both with American life and American public men remarked that the first Governor of the Philippines ought to combine the qualities which would make a first-class President of the United States with the qualities which would make a first-class Chief Justice of the United States, and that the only man he knew who possessed all these qualities was Judge William H. Taft of Ohio. The statement was entirely correct.” By the time the article was published, McKinley was dead, the author was President of the United States, and the subject was working for him.

Roosevelt now offered his friend the pinnacle of his ambition—a seat on the Supreme Court. But Taft, deeply and emotionally involved in managing the affairs of the Philippines, felt duty-bound to decline the appointment. It was only when the President asked Taft to become Secretary of War, the officer with jurisdiction over the Islands, that he consented to leave Manila and return to Washington. Outside the gates of Malacanan Palace 6,000 Filipinos paraded with signs, “¡Queremos Taft! [We want Taft!]”

Once in the Cabinet, Taft was preferred over all others; Roosevelt made him in fact, if not title, Assistant President. His duties extended far beyond the confines of the War Department; he was the President’s principal troubleshooter. Editorial-page cartoonists loved to draw Taft’s massive dimensions, usually carrying a suitcase, rushing off to put out some far-off fire—to Panama to get “the dirt flying,” to Cuba to bring an uneasy peace, to the western states to campaign for a Roosevelt Congress.

Then Roosevelt took the step that was bound to end their friendship: he made Taft President.

At William Howard Taft’s inauguration, his youngest son, eleven-year-old Charlie, was seen carrying a copy of Treasure Island . “This affair is going to be pretty dry,” he told his sister, Helen, “and I want something to read.” Robert Taft, on the other hand, watched with rapt attention as his father was sworn in. After the ceremony, Mrs. Taft shattered precedent by insisting on riding to the White House with the new President. “Some of the Inaugural Committee expressed their disapproval,” reported Nellie, “but I had my way and in spite of protests took my place at my husband’s side.”

Every new administration brings its own cast of characters to the national scene, and none are more interesting to the American public than the presidential children. Of the three young Tafts, little Charlie was the extrovert and general mischief-maker. The future mayor of Cincinnati had travelled twice around the world with his parents before he was eight, and, according to his sister, “gave interviews to the newspapers and posed for photographers at every stop!” When his father joined the President’s Cabinet, he joined that Peck’s Bad Boy of the White House, Quentin Roosevelt, in such Executive Mansion diversions as pasting spitballs that looked like warts on the portrait of Andrew Jackson.

Charlie had inherited his father’s dimple and chuckle, but it was Helen, in the opinion of the President, who was most like him in character. She was now a student at Bryn Mawr College, where she would later serve as professor of history, dean, and acting president. While more liberal than her father—she had made headlines by speaking in favor of aggrieved shirtmakers—she usually remained quiet and discreet.

It was Robert A. Taft, the future Republican leader, who was most uneasy in the limelight’s glare. During his father’s administration he graduated from Yale first in his class, and entered Harvard Law School. A young lady at a Boston party who had failed to catch his name had an impossible time trying to detect his identity by adroit questioning: Where did he live? His family home was in Ohio. Did he go back there for holidays? No, the family was now in Washington and he spent his holidays there. What did the family do in Washington? His father had a government job. And where did they live in Washington? “On Pennsylvania Avenue,” answered Bob. He did not mean to be coy; it was just that he would rather not be known as the President’s son if he could help it.