William Howard Taft

William Howard TaftHow do you follow Theodore Roosevelt? The same could be asked of Roosevelt’s cousin, FDR, or Ronald Reagan. In the case of both Reagan and Roosevelt, you elect the man’s handpicked successor to finish up his paperwork. In the case of Reagan, that would be George H.W. Bush, who very much would have liked a second term. In the case of TR…

Let’s just say that Mrs. Taft wanted the White House more than Will Taft wanted it. But that’s what happens when you send a judge to do an executive’s job. Not that Taft wasn’t capable or willing. It just wasn’t his thing. When you get down to it, only James Buchanan wanted out of the White House more than Taft.

But I get ahead of myself. When I reached this president, a Cincinnati product like William Henry Harrison (a Virginia transplant), Ulysses Grant, or Benjamin Harrison, I decided to look more at the local angle than Taft in light of the two presidential giants who book end his term, Roosevelt and Wilson.

For that, I read Mark Painter’s short biography of Taft. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I selected his wife’s biography of William Henry Harrison to look into that president’s life. Like Mrs. Painter’s book, the Taft bio was only a hundred pages long. Unlike Mrs. Painter, Judge Painter has a whole four-year term to work with.

And it’s appropriate Mark Painter is a judge, for that was what Taft was, first and foremost. Taft went to University of Cincinnati Law School and started as an assistant county prosecutor for Hamilton County. Eventually, he became a Superior Court judge, Solicitor General of the United States, and a federal appellate judge. If that was as far as he ever went, he would have been happy.

But Taft was also friends with Theodore Roosevelt. On Roosevelt’s recommendation, President McKinley appointed him governor of The Phillipines after the Spanish-American War. Good thing, too. Taft set about crafting a democratic government and modernizing the country, a sharp contrast from military governor Arthur MacArthur’s. (Yes, the father of Douglas MacArthur.) The general looked at The Phillipines like Indian land recently taken and treated the natives as such. Taft took to the job with gusto and declined a seat on the Supreme Court, his life’s goal, because he did not think The Phillipines could spare him.

As it was, Taft would be drawn further and further from the bench. He returned to the US to succeed Elihu Root as Secretary of War. Yet his tenure in Roosevelt’s cabinet was decidedly un-warlike. He stepped in as provisional governor of Cuba when civil war threatened to break out in the young republic, mediating between rebels and the original government. He supervised construction of the Panama Canal. He also spent a considerable amount of time huddling with Roosevelt on anti-trust and labor policy, as well as making diplomatic calls on Roosevelt’s behalf, typically the Secretary of State’s job. In his position, his skills as a mediator were invaluable.

In the White House, where he served as Roosevelt’s chosen successor (handily defeating perennial bridesmaid William Jennings Bryant in the general election), he was miserable. While Taft could resolve a dispute or run a project or set up a government and public services, he had no stomach for the rough-and-tumble politics required of the chief executive. When Roosevelt tried to retake the White House in 1912, it probably came as a relief when Wilson actually won.

What Taft wanted, and what he thought he’d never have after Wilson’s victory, was a seat on the Supreme Court. Yet in 1921, Warren Harding became president. A Republican like Taft, Harding chose the Cincinnati-born judge to fill a vacancy for chief justice. On the bench, he disagreed constantly with two of his associate justices in the opinions handed down. Ironically, they became his closest friends on the high court. It was here, however, that Taft was happiest. And here that his time in the cabinet and as governor of The Phillipines paid off. The federal courts were a mess in 1921. The Supreme Court had a huge backlog of cases. There were not enough federal courts to handle the lower cases, nor could the Supreme Court refuse to hear cases. On top of that, the court was housed in the Senate Building at the Capitol. Taft wanted to 1.) expand the lower courts, 2.) limit the Supreme Court’s case load to only important cases, and 3.) get this third branch of the US government its own building. By 1926, Taft’s efforts resulted in the largest overhaul of the federal judiciary since 1789, when Congress originally defined the courts and the Supreme Court’s role. Taft did not live to see the Supreme Court Building itself open, but he was present when the cornerstone was laid.

Like a lot of presidents, Taft’s biggest accomplishments preceded his time in the White House. Unlike any other president, he was actually more accomplished after he left office than he was before or during his tenure.