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The William Howard Taft Presidency (American Presidency Series) Hardcover – October 20, 2009
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"This is the best informed and most judicious study yet published about the Taft presidency. Gould has poured into this short book the product of his impressive research and extensive reflection about the politics of the progressive period, Taft’s uncomfortable role therein, and not the least Taft’s controversial relationship with Theodore Roosevelt."—John Morton Blum, author of The Republican Roosevelt and The Progressive Presidents "Gould effectively and evenhandedly examines the sweet as well as the sour of this presidency, balancing Taft’s intelligence, integrity, and efficiency on one side with a surprising impulsiveness and lack of intimate, reliable political advice on the other."—John Milton Cooper, author of Pivotal Decades: The United States 1900–1920 "Impressively researched, judiciously argued, and gracefully written, this book is full of humor as well as wisdom. Most important, it offers a thorough, balanced account of the Taft presidency that is sure to become the standard work on the subject and a valuable resource for the next generation of scholars."—Bruce J. Schulman, author of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s "Quite simply, the best book ever written about the Taft presidency. Gould’s mastery of the sources, command of early twentieth-century politics, and sage judgments make this book an indispensable guide to our too often forgotten 27th president."—Richard J. Ellis, author of Founding the American Presidency and Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George W. Bush
From the Back Cover
"This is the best informed and most judicious study yet published about the Taft presidency. Gould has poured into this short book the product of his impressive research and extensive reflection about the politics of the progressive period, Taft's uncomfortable role therein, and not the least Taft's controversial relationship with Theodore Roosevelt."--John Morton Blum, author of The Republican Roosevelt and The Progressive Presidents
"Gould effectively and evenhandedly examines the sweet as well as the sour of this presidency, balancing Taft's intelligence, integrity, and efficiency on one side with a surprising impulsiveness and lack of intimate, reliable political advice on the other."--John Milton Cooper, author of Pivotal Decades: The United States 1900-1920
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William Howard Taft was Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor. The two constituted a mutual admiration society which, it turned out, was based more on assumptions than reality. Taft wasn’t as progressive as TR assumed he was, and while he didn’t show it, Taft was uneasy with TR’s bold shoot-first, ask-questions-later presidential style. A conservative at heart, as president Taft would drift away from TR’s decidedly progressive policies. As a result, TR would become so angered he created his own political party to oppose his former friend in the next presidential election.
Taft had shown considerable executive ability in the Philippines and the War Department from 1900 to 1908, under presidents William McKinley and Roosevelt. When it came time to make decisions as president, Taft relied on his knowledge of the law and his years as a federal appeals court judge in Ohio in 1892 to 1900. “On issue after issue, whether it was the tariff, conservation, antitrust, or foreign affairs,” writes the author, “Taft brought a judicial temperament to the Oval Office. He consulted few people, weighed his options in isolation, and rendered political judgements as he had once delivered verdicts.” In the early stages of his presidency, Taft continued Roosevelt’s progressive policies, and actually busted more trusts than TR did. Taft did much to advance the cause of conservation, and he strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ability to regulate railroad rates. On his watch, Congress passed the Sixteenth and Seventeenth amendments, providing for a federal income tax and the direct election of senators, which Taft duly signed and sent to the states for ratification. But as his term progressed, his belief in limited government and his innate caution pushed him further and further toward the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Instead of pushing progressive programs as Roosevelt expected he would, Taft sat on his hands. By 1912, the ideological divide in the Republican ranks and the differences between Taft and TR had become so great the party split, thus ensuring Democrat Woodrow Wilson would become the next president.
Taft gained a great deal of weight while occupying the Oval Office (weighing over 300 pounds) which he shed after the 1912 election. Eight years later, newly elected president Warren G. Harding appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position better suited to Taft’s training and temperament. He remains the only president to have served on the Supreme Court. Looking back on his career, Taft remarked, “I don’t remember that I was president.” Is that a telling comment, or what? Bottom line: while Taft was no doubt brilliant, his presidency was a throwback to the Gilded Age (and lasses-faire) presidencies of Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison—bland, steady, safe.
This is not to say that Taft was a spectacularly effective, or even critically important, President. There is a reason that he has been consigned to the metaphorical dust heap of history. What Gould finally addresses, evenhandedly, are the inner workings and struggles of Taft in an office he was never truly suited to inhabit. Here, one gets a sense of looking over Taft's shoulder as he attempts to shun the image of Roosevelt's iconic grappling of presidential power. Let's face it: just as John Adams, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were unfairly crushed in popular opinion by the shadow of their predecessors, so Taft could never hope to succeed following TR. Gould covers that crucial point and also elaborates on a number of critical mistakes that Taft made that hurt his cause. In fact, Taft's presidency reads as a manual of all the things NOT to do in order to succeed in the White House: lose the public image battle (WHT's love of golf as his recreational habit simultaneously portrays him as "elitist" and exposes him to unflattering photographs highlighting his weight, further contrasting him with TR), issue confusing contradictions of public policy decisions, hire unqualified people to handle your crucial departments, and add a healthy dose of bad luck and controversial economic decisions to the mix.
The bottom line about the book is: this is THE book to read about WHT AND also essential for anybody interested in the era. Not only does Taft's foreign policy decisions foreshadow WWI and Latin American troubles of the 20th Century, but Gould always highlights, correctly, how Taft's presidency led to the modern Republican party. By reneging on his promise to extend TR's progressive agenda, he caused a schism in the GOP that expelled the more progressive and moderate members of the party into independent and Democratic causes. As a result, the Republican party maintained its approval of laissez-faire economics and dissaproval of union power, at the expense of its more progressive social policy base. As a result, the Democratic party ascended to the major party of power for most of the 20th Century until the 1970s. Until Nixon, the Republicans were only able to elect Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower to the Oval Office. In that way, Taft influenced 20th Century politics in his most pervasive way. At 215 pages, it is an easy read, and Gould pentrates the inner workings of this deceptively simple time in ways that keeps the reader engaged throughout the narrative.
For those of you who are trying to read a biography of every president, this is the one to read for Taft.