- Historic Sites
Big Bill Taft
The only American ever to be both President and Chief Justice of this country was jolly, energetic, and weighed over three hundred pounds.
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
The salary-plus-expenses of the President had just been raised from $75,000 to $100,000; at last William Howard Taft would make enough to support his family luxuriously. He took to motoring with a passion. “Well, children,” he would say, “enjoy this all you can, for in four years more you may have to begin to walk over again.” He playfully told Nellie that after the White House they would go back to the “lower middle class,” and insisted that she not scrimp on her wardrobe, a suggestion which, to his surprise, she followed. Mrs. Taft filled the Executive Mansion with furniture, tapestries, and screens from the Orient. She covered the floors with petates , and filled the rooms to overflowing with plants, ferns, and exotic flowers, so that the servants, in concealed rebellion, were soon referring to the White House as “Malacañan Palace.”
The Tafts entertained lavishly. The lawn party they gave on their silver wedding anniversary was one of the largest affairs ever held at the White House. When Aunt Delia arrived, the Washington Star editorialized that now the party was “an assured success” because she would superintend the making of her famous apple pies. The old lady enjoyed the notoriety, but confessed to the family that “she had not made an apple pie for forty years and never did know how to make one properly.” The President and his First Lady greeted the crush of guests under a flowery arch inscribed “18861911,” while searchlights from the Treasury and State Department buildings played on the White House; paper lanterns were everywhere. The effect, commented Mrs. Ellen Slayden, was “crude like a fair or circus,” which surprised her, since “the Tafts have such excellent taste usually. …”
But Mrs. William Howard Taft, who had felt destined to be First Lady since she was seventeen, was not destined to enjoy her reign. Three months after the inauguration she had a stroke. The President lovingly taught her to speak again, but, although she was to live until a week short of her eiehtv-second birthday, surviving her husband by thirteen years, after her slow recovery she would have a speech impairment for the rest of her life. In 1910 Helen Taft dropped out of college for a year, to replace her mother as the official White House hostess.
The President’s office during Roosevelt’s occupancy had been a cluttered reflection of a cultured man with a craving for the strenuous life. There was a riding crop and a tennis racket in the corner, and piles of books—history, fiction, even poetry. But when reporter Ray Stannard Baker went to interview the new President he discovered a transformation had taken place. “Now the office had become, and not without significance, a law-office. On all sides of the room were cases filled with law-books, nothing but law-books.” And the new Cabinet, of which Taft was extraordinarily proud, now contained five “good, first-class lawyers,” including Henry Taft’s partner George Wickersham. “The law to President Taft,” wrote Archie Butt, “is the same support as some zealots get from great religious faith.”
It soon became apparent that Roosevelt and the man he had chosen as his successor held diametrically opposite views of the Presidency. Taft felt that the Chief Executive had no power that was not specifically spelled out in the Constitution or in an act of Congress. “There is no residuum of power which he can exercise [wrote Taft] because it seems to him to be in the public interest. …” “I declined to adopt this view,” said Roosevelt. “My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”
Yet Taft, despite his strict interpretation of presidential functions, proposed and, in some areas, achieved even greater reforms than Roosevelt. He secured a tariff revision which on balance was a liberalization of existing schedules; put through the postalsavings-bank system; became “the Father of the Federal Budget”; got Congress to approve a reciprocity treaty with Canada, later defeated by the Canadian legislature; brought more prosecutions under the Sherman Antitrust Act than ever before (ninety as compared with forty-four instituted under Roosevelt); drafted constitutional amendments for the direct election of U.S. senators and for the income tax; started a Department of Labor; and tried to get nations to settle disputes through international arbitration.
But as a politician Taft was all thumbs. “The honest greenhorn at the poker table” is what he was called by a New York Times reporter. Said Speaker Cannon, in disgust: “If Taft were pope he’d want to appoint some Protestants to the College of Cardinals.” The President was incapable of arousing the public conscience, his relations with the press were atrocious, his speeches were long-winded and stodgy. He justified his actions in legalistic pronouncements; and then, having said all he felt there was to say on a subject, he said no more.
Taft didn’t know how to humor the insurgents in his own ranks, and midway in his term he lost control of the Congress altogether. The new Democratic House had no intention of making life comfortable for the Republican President. One congressional committee sought to embarrass him by digging up a minor scandal that had taken place ten years before in the State Department. Taft said it reminded him of the man who was asked in a restaurant whether he wanted oxtail soup, which the waiter explained, was merely soup made from the tail of the ox. “Neighbor,” the patron replied, “don’t you think that’s going a hell of a long way back for soup?”