October 14, 2014

to whom it may concern

When Harding got elected, he intimated to Taft that if a spot on the Supreme Court came open, he would give it to him. I can't imagine the effect this would have had on him — in his mid-60s, after a lifetime of dizzying ups and downs, hearing that his dream may finally come true.

When the chief justice chair did open up, Taft did his best to keep his composure. His friends were more than willing to lobby on his behalf, but he sent them pretty detailed and fervent instructions about how to do so.

He was worried that his age (63) might be a hindrance. But, he wrote to his friend Gus Karger, in what is the either the sweetest or most desperate cover letter ever written: "I have had federal judicial experience, too. I. Three years on the state bench. 2. Two years solicitor general, U.S. 3. Eight years presiding judge, U.S. Circuit. 4. Four years Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit. 5. Four years secretary of war. 6. Four years president. 7. Eight years Kent professor, Yale University, five hours a week Federal Constitutional Law except one year Chairman National War Labor Board and one year arbitrator in case between Canadian government and Grand Trunk Railway. That would seem to indicate pretty continuous service in the line of judicial and other duties preparing one for service on the Supreme Court."

Oh Taft, you darling man.

He was an incredibly modest and good-hearted man, which is what I think allowed him to bounce back from a failed presidency so easily. Because he had never had a huge ego, there wasn't much of one to deflate. His presidency, the unhappiest time of his life, soon enough faded to an item on a long list of accomplishments.

He was named chief justice in June 1921, served tirelessly until February 1930, and died one month later.

October 06, 2014

which of us will be the happiest

A presidential tradition — one which I would watch out for and catalog if I could start ATD over again — is the moment when an exhausted outgoing president congratulates his successor and is basically like "Here's the White House, knock yourself out lol."

Presidents love being done being president, and there have been some real zingers over the years as they pass on the mantle.

At John Adams' inauguration, he said he thought he could see George Washington thinking: "I am fairly out, and you are fairly in. See which of us will be the happiest." [Note: GW did not actually say this, don't be fooled by HBO.]

But of all the presidents who click their heels with glee on the way out the door, Taft has to be up there with Buchanan, Arthur, and Tyler. He didn't even want a second term, he really only campaigned to make sure Roosevelt didn't get re-elected.

By late 1911, it was patently clear that TR wanted to run for president again. I throw a lot of shade at TR, but his situation was also pitiable. He became president at the age of 42 and served for seven and a half years. At 50, he had more energy and ambition than the rest of the federal government put together, but found himself essentially in retirement. So naturally he went bananas. He couldn't bear not being at the center of things, in power, so he decided he should be president again.

But a lot of revisionism and self-justification had to happen so he could convince himself it was the right thing to do. He had to convince himself that Taft was ruining the country, that the Republican party that he had helped strengthen was going to the dogs, and that he himself was basically a socialist.

Above all he loved a high horse — literally and figuratively. A speech at the 1912 convention ended with the words: "We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

Henry F. Pringle (another real champion at presidential biography insults) replies: "It was magnificent. It was epic, even if nobody knew where Armageddon was, exactly, and why the Lord had suddenly become an opponent of William Howard Taft."

Despite popular support, the Republican convention of 1912 insisted on Taft as their candidate, kind of because all the delegates were like "Guys? I know Teddy is popular and all but it seems like he's spinning himself into an egomaniacal frenzy?" (Wilson called it his "insane distemper of egotism.")


And he was. Incensed at not getting the nomination, he ran as a third-party candidate under his platform of New Nationalism, forcing himself farther to the left than any serious presidential candidate had ever gone in order to distinguish himself from his old party. Then he got down to the business of smearing his former friend Bill for a few solid months.

Taft, to recap, did not want to serve a second term, and did not want to get into a public fight with TR, but, in order to keep the crazed socialist moose out of the White House, was forced to do both. After a day of campaigning, during which he'd given many speeches defending himself from TR's accusations and throwing back new ones, Taft was scheduled for an interview with newspaperman Louis Seibold. When Seibold got to his train car, Taft simply said, "He was my closest friend," and started to weep.

America chose Woodrow Wilson, TR got to move on to his next flight of fancy, and the Taft presidency came to a close to everyone's satisfaction.

Unless Pringle's biography is leading me astray, I've never seen a failed president become a beloved private citizen so quickly. Upon leaving office, Taft immediately took up a professorship at Yale, which he used as a headquarters for his new role as America's friendly uncle. He was in demand as a speaker and writer, gave lots of good-natured speeches that made the country fall back in love with him, and — hoping to take the opposite tack of his predecessor — was publicly very supportive of Wilson.

And things were just going to get better.


October 01, 2014

Major Butt

Archibald Willingham DeGraffenreid Clarendon Butt, known as Archie to his friends, in which number could be counted Big Ego Roosevelt and Big Bill Taft, was a Georgia boy who worked as a newspaperman and then joined the army volunteers during the Spanish-American War, serving mainly as a quartermaster and working his way up to major.

So yes, Major Butt is what I call him.

After getting to know both of them personally when he worked for the army in The Philippines, Major Butt served as military aide to both Big Ego and Big Bill. (I'm not sure what the role of military aide entailed, but during Taft's administration he became the president's closest adviser, friend, and confidante.)

This is obviously comical and somewhat sad — that the president who couldn't catch a break had a best friend named Major Butt — but ol' Butt over there was truly a swell guy.

Quartermasters are the unglamorous heroes of the military, enormously essential but rarely acknowledged for their work. (Ulysses S. Grant worked as a quartermaster so obviously I love them. It was kind of the secret to why he was a great general, but that's not what we're here to talk about). At one point he was in charge of transporting 500 mules from Hawaii to The Philippines. That all 500 survived the journey was what first made the higher-ups take notice.

He moved to Washington in 1908 to serve under TR and then Big Bill. He wrote daily letters to his sister Clara, which are enormously helpful to historians in understanding the two presidents and especially their relationship to each other. Being close to both of them, their eventual feud stressed him out, and Taft told him to go on vacation during the 1912 primaries so he wouldn't have to take sides. He spent 6 weeks in Europe with his "housemate and friend" Francis (they were gay), even traveling to the Vatican with a letter from Taft to Pope Pius X.

Major Butt boarded the HMS Titanic in April 1912. Taft spoke at memorial services for him both in Georgia and Washington, although his eulogy at the second service had to be cut short because Taft couldn't stop crying. (To be totally honest, Taft cried a lot in 1912.) A bridge commemorating his death, known by locals as Butt Bridge, was built in his hometown of August, GA in 1914, and escaped demolition by a memorable "Save Our Butt" campaign in 1994 and 1995.

September 25, 2014

OH TAFT

Oh, Taft. When a chapter of your biography is titled "So Little Time Remained," it's a bad sign. The second paragraph of this chapter starts with the words: "Another major problem for which there was not enough time..."

["Another major problem for which there was not enough time" could be the title of this blog come to think of it, were At Times Dull not so snappy.]

The chapter that followed this one was titled "A Final Futile Dream." Henry F. Pringle is not in raptures over Big Bill, is what I'm getting at. I can't bring myself to outline the major political issues of his administration. There was a to-do with Japan and China regarding Manchuria. There was unrest in Mexico that Taft didn't want to get involved with. There were oh so many problems with the tariff. There was, I'm not kidding, an enormous debate over the prices of second class mail.

Taft become more stubborn and isolated as his term went on and garnered more and more criticism. He was also obviously hurt by the fact that Roosevelt openly opposed many of his policies, even though he'd become president essentially at Roosevelt's urging. Oh except when things were getting crazy in Mexico Roosevelt wrote him a letter that was like "Hey I know we're not friends anymore and in fact I'm tanking your political career but on the off chance we go to war with Mexico I'd love to be in it, like leading 3 cavalry regiments would be pretty cool." UGH TR WE KNOW YOU LOVE WAR AND HORSES, GO HOME PLEASE.

A lot of Taft's dreams came true after his presidency so I've got that to look forward to. In the meantime, there's a cute story about Taft and Alice Roosevelt. You may remember that they traveled together on a diplomatic mission to Asia, and had become close friends. He sent her a silver cigarette case for Christmas, because unlike most men in Washington he was down with her smoking, and she wrote back and said that he was the best.

September 22, 2014

Taft: The Early Years That I Don't Know Much About

In the feast-or-famine way of presidential biographies, it was slim pickings for Taft. There's one book just about his 4 years as president, one about his emotional life (??), a few that are out of print, and a 1,000-page 2-volume biography that is regarded as mediocre. Its author was admittedly a big fan of TR and decided to research Taft because of their relationship, but ultimately didn't like him. And yet his is my best option, so I decided to read just the second volume of William Howard Taft by Henry Pringle.

It starts in 1910 when the mid-term Taft is in a tariff battle. As is well-documented on this page, I do not understand the tariff and every time it comes up I zone out, so this was not an auspicious beginning.

Here is what I know about Taft's life pre-1910 due to his apperances in the Roosevelt biography and a quick reading of his wikipedia page.

- He went to Yale, where he got the nickname "Big Bill," was a wrestler, and graduated 2nd in his class.
- He then returned to Ohio to start his law career in order to pursue his dream job of supreme court justice. (Ohio is to the turn of the 20th century what Virginia was to the turn of the 19th century as far as presidential politics go. Including Taft, 4 of the last 8 presidents — Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Taft — were Buckeyes.)
- Benjamin Harrison made him Solicitor General, and then McKinley put him in charge of the newly-acquired Philippines.
- When Roosevelt took over, Big Bill was Governor-General of The Philippines. Roosevelt repeatedly offered him jobs in the federal government, including a supreme court seat a few times, but he refused because he wanted to finish the job he'd started there. I'm actually pretty sad that I don't get to read more about his time as Governor-General — apparently he was really good at it and had a great relationship with the Filipinos, who found him lovable if baffling walking around in the tropical heat in a 3-piece suit.
- Roosevelt eventually convinced him to come home and be Secretary of War, and was public about the fact that he thought Taft should succeed him as president.
- Roosevelt loved Taft. Taft loved Roosevelt. Know who didn't love Roosevelt? Helen Taft. Except Helen wanted to be first lady, and Roosevelt was going to make that happen. Taft would have preferred to wait for a supreme court seat. Helen and Roosevelt had other opinions.

September 20, 2014

presidential fact #26

William H. Taft's father, Alphonso Taft, was a co-founder of Skull & Bones.

July 22, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt: Spelling Advocate

Do you know why we Americans use the spelling "theater" while our British cousins use the spelling "theatre?" Because of Theodore Roosevelt!

Kind of.

Peeple uzed to spelle wordes howwever the hel thay fellt.

Movements for standardized spelling came and went, but no standardized dictionary ever took hold.

Then in 1906 Andrew Carnegie founded the Simplified Spelling Board, pledging $15,000 out of his own pocket every year for 5 years. The SSB published a list of 300 errant words whose spellings they wanted to nail down for eternity. These 300 words were comprised mainly of the following four standardizations:

-ed words changed to -t (addressed/addresst)
-ou words changed to -o (colour/color)
-re words changed to -er (theatre/theater)
-ise words changed to -ize (categorise/categorize)
-plus some miscellaneous simplifications like catalogue/catalog

TR was all over it, and immediately ordered the government to follow these rules, and adopted them in his own correspondence (to the chagrin of his biographers, to be sure). As you will infer, if you speak English, some of these changes stuck and some didn't.

A few months later Congress reversed Roosevelt's pronouncement, saying that government printing offices could continue to use whichever spelling they wanted, but the idea stuck that these simplifications were the "American way," and with Carnegie and Roosevelt behind the idea, it kept gaining steam from there.