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.


  1. I love coming here and reading this blog! Keep it up! I'm with you to the end!

  2. That thing about Presidents being so glad to be done and out of the White House: I noticed it in Truman and Eisenhower. Both campaigned so hard for that next term but boy, when it was over they were out of there!