October 28, 2014

our first Confederate president

Woodrow Wilson's first memory is standing in his front yard in Augusta, Georgia in 1860, at the age of 3, and hearing someone passing say that Abraham Lincoln had won the election and that war was coming. He ran inside to ask his parents who Abraham Lincoln was, and what war was.

Although Augusta was spared the destruction of many of the neighboring Georgia towns (a reprieve rumored to result from the fact that an ex-girlfriend of General Sherman lived in Augusta), the fact remains that Wilson grew up in the war-ravaged Deep South. (During the war his father, a Presbyterian minister, left to serve as a chaplain for soldiers in North Carolina.) A few years later, he would again stand outside and watch Jefferson Davis being marched through town under federal guard.

Every president from Lincoln to McKinley served in the Civil War. (All of them as soldiers except Arthur, who was a quartermaster, because of course he was.) Roosevelt and Taft were young during the Civil War but were fairly removed from it, but Wilson really lived it, and as a Southerner! It's fascinating to me that there's a US president who at one point, by many's accounting, was a citizen of the Confederate States of America.

There hadn't been a Southern president since Andrew Johnson 50 years before, and he was a grade A fiasco. But America hadn't actually elected a Southern president since Zachary Taylor in 1849! And he slid in by winning a war.

This fascinates me — partially because I had no idea Wilson was from the South, and because I'm interested to see how growing up in a marginalized region of the country at its lowest point affects his political life (of course, by the time he reached the presidency he'd lived most of his adult life in New Jersey). A. Scott Berg is clearly setting it up to be a founding principle.

And while I'm at it, it is a straight up pleasure to be in the hands of the inimitable A. Scott Berg for this biography. I wish he'd written all the biographies.

October 25, 2014

presidential fact #27

Woodrow Wilson was the last president to write all his own speeches.

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.