Quick Review: WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT by Jeffrey Rosen (Times Books)

RosenJ-APS27-WilliamHowardTaftAn excellent, short introduction to the life and career of the 27th president

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

William Howard Taft is one of the lesser-known presidents. For many, if he is known at all, it is due to the fact that he was quite large. It’s unfortunate that his story has been boiled down into a punch-line. A life-long Republican who was enamoured with the Constitution and those who crafted it, he spent his career judiciously adhering to what he saw as the tenets laid down by the Founding Fathers. He was meticulous, he was extremely intelligent and well-read. He placed principle above party at almost all times. In his contribution to the excellent American Presidents Series, Rosen gives readers a very good, short and engaging introduction to Taft’s life and career.

Rosen, a constitutional scholar himself, was a good choice for this biography. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author spends much of the book describing and analyzing Taft’s relationship with and appreciation of the law and America’s founding texts. It’s always accessible, though, and interesting.

Taft’s lifelong dream was to sit on the Supreme Court — specifically, to be Chief Justice. His love of the law was from his father, who served as President Grant’s Attorney General and Secretary of War. William Howard Taft served on the Ohio Supreme Court, and he was rarely more content than when he held that position. If it hadn’t been for his wife, in fact, it’s possible that Taft would have remained in Ohio. Nellie, in fact, deserves a fair amount of thanks for pushing Taft into the political arena. Rosen handles Taft’s personal life with a light touch — in fact, not much of the book is focused on his non-professional life, save for an obligatory inclusion about Taft’s weight, and how he actually controlled it for most of his life through sheer force of will and strict self-control. It turns out, though, that Taft was a stress-eater, which explains his increased weight during his unhappy presidency. (In some ways, Rosen’s account of Taft’s presidency reminded me of John Quincy Adams’s miserable presidency — a staggeringly intelligent man, simply unsuited to the parts of politics that hinge on popularity and connecting with the average voter.)

Rosen chronicles Taft’s unusual partnership with Theodore Roosevelt, and the quite stark differences between the 26th and 27th presidents’ approaches to governing, the office, and the Constitution. He describes Taft’s various positions in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations — including Taft’s time as Governor of the Philippines, a position he and his wife seem to have very much enjoyed, which was perhaps a surprise to many of their peers. Rosen also looks briefly at the break between TR and WHT. (For a much more full account of Roosevelt and Taft’s shared history, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magnificent The Bully Pulpit.)

Overall, this is a fine addition to the American President Series, which is now almost complete (I’ve read and highly recommend them all). These books are perfect for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the very large pool of presidential biographies. Each is concise and well-written, and gives readers an excellent jumping-off point for future reading. Like many, Rosen’s book left me wanting to learn more about Taft — which is, I believe, ultimately the point of this series of biographies.

Definitely recommended.


Jeffrey Rosen’s William Howard Taft is out now, published by Times Books.

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