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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 presidential years, Taft’s daughter concluded, “were the only unhappy years of his entire life.”
Teddy Roosevelt had sincerely wished his successor well and was determined to allow him to run his own show. So, immediately after the Taft inauguration, he went off to Africa to hunt big game. (And as T. R. left Washington, some congressmen lifted their glasses in a toast: “To the lions!”) But the trouble with Roosevelt was that he was too young—only fifty-one when he vacated the White House—and he knew that his rightful place would always be at the head of the charge. Then too, after he returned home, there were so many old friends who hurried to Oyster Bay with tales of personal or ideological slights by the President. Others were running to Taft with the same sort of self-serving gossip. Minor incidents were blown up into major differences. “It is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship going to pieces like a rope of sand,” said Taft. Henry L. Stimson declared, “It was not principle but personality, not purpose but method, that divided Mr. Taft and Mr. Roosevelt.” Many, like Stimson, were torn between their loyalties to the two men. The daughter of Maggie, the second maid at the White House, reported that “half the servants were for Taft; half for T. R.”
At the 1912 Republican convention, Taft, unpopular as he might be, was still the incumbent President, and therefore in control of the party machinery. With Taft’s renomination, Roosevelt bolted the party, announcing that he would “stand at Armageddon” and run on a third-party ticket. The cynical railroad czar Chauncey Depew pronounced: “The only question now is which corpse gets the most flowers.”
Taft received only eight electoral votes, those of Vermont and Utah. “I regard this as something of an achievement,” commented reporter Charles Willis Thompson, “and should be disposed to compliment Utah and Vermont if it were not that the Mormon machine pulled Utah through and that it’s a capital offense to vote a third party ticket in Vermont.”
Often it would be said of Taft, “He was a bad President, but a good sport.” The judgment of his character cannot be faulted; the judgment of his Presidency is more debatable. Perhaps it is fairer to say that he was at least an average President whose achievements tend to be overshadowed because he had the historical misfortune to be sandwiched between two great Presidents, Roosevelt and Wilson.
At a “school of journalism” conducted by Washington’s elite Gridiron Club in February, 1913, the “professor” was asked to define a remarkable coincidence. “The most remarkable coincidence of the year 1913,” came the reply, “is that at the very moment Professor Wilson becomes President Wilson, President Taft becomes Professor Taft.”
The years at Yale would be happy and productive for the ex-President. He had saved $100,000 during his presidential term, and its income, along with a $5,000 salary as professor of law, would be enough, he felt, “to keep the wolf from the door, especially in view of the fact that I do not expect to eat as much after leaving the White House.” He also supplemented his income by public speaking, and anyone requesting his services was sent a list of thirty subjects to choose from, ranging from “Duties of Citizenship” to “The Initiative and Referendum.” Taft’s fees ran from $150 to $1,000, averaging $400 an appearance.
Yale gave a royal welcome to its only alumnus to have been President, “second to no triumphal procession of any Caesar and surpassing any such celebration in the history of the college of the bulldog,” wrote the New Haven Journal-Courier . The school provided oversized chairs, with twenty-five inch seats, for its new faculty member, who set up an office at brother Charlie’s hotel, the Taft. Soon he was coaching the freshman debate team (which, however, lost to Harvard and Princeton), and was enjoying himself at junior proms, banquets, smokers, and ball games.
After a lifetime of deferring to family wishes and to his sense of duty, William Howard Taft finally realized his ambition. In 1921 he was appointed Chief Justice of the United States. “At last Mr. Taft has come to his journey’s end,” wrote a Washington correspondent. “He has been a long time on the way.”
Days on the Supreme Court proved to be everything that Taft always dreamed they would be. “The truth is,” he wrote in 1925, “that in my present life I don’t remember that I ever was President.” An apocryphal tale was told of a little boy who stopped him during his daily walk to the Court, and said, “I know who you are. You used to be President Coolidge!”
He proved to be a conservative, just as expected. Jurisprudentially he wasn’t able to win over Holmes, Brandeis, and Stone, but his affable nature won them as friends, and he was particularly surprised to discover how much he liked Brandeis, whose appointment he had bitterly opposed.
For a man who viewed so narrowly the functions ot the Presidency, Taft held a broad and free-wheeling concept of the Chief Justice’s role, “investing his office,” wrote Professor Alpheus T. Mason, “with prerogatives for which there were few, if any, precedents.” He lobbied blatantly and with considerable success for increasing the number of federal judges, constructing a separate building for the Supreme Court, and tightening the administrative machinery of the federal judiciary, and for procedural changes that would increase the Court’s efficiency.