William Howard Taft
by Jeffrey Rosen
Times Books, 2018
The “American Presidents” series from Henry Holt's Times Books imprint continues its long and disproportionately magnificent run with a tough sell: law professor and legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen turns in densely-written and richly-researched 140-page biography of William Howard Taft, the nation's 27th President and its first Chief Executive to also hold the office of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In addition to being a one-term president whose term fell between the dramatic administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Taft also suffers from what the 21st century would consider an “optics” problem: he was notoriously overweight, he sported exactly the kind of walrus mustache that's now become symbolic with bygone-era presidents, he shrank from controversy in a way that virtually spells out “caretaker,” and he tended to spend more time on the golf course than in the White House. He was not the stuff of heroic blank verse epic, and he knew it better than anybody.
“Biography reminds us that presidents are not supermen,” series editor Arthur Schlesinger writes in his brief Editor's Note to this volume. “They are human beings too, worrying about decisions, attending to wives and children, juggling balls in the air, and putting on their pants one leg at a time.” To bring home the point, Rosen himself quotes the Supreme Court: “Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln.”
Taft was neither wicked nor particularly heroic, and he famously had no great love of the presidency into which momentum and the ambition of others ushered him. Certainly he had no great love for the tenor of the job that had been established by his predecessor; Theodore Roosevelt believed that the President could do anything the Constitution didn't explicitly forbid him from doing, whereas Taft was much more of the opinion that the President could only do what the Constitution explicitly empowered him to do. The contrast inevitably made him look timid, and Rosen does a wonderfully sensitive job shading the nuance back into the picture in ways that almost can't help but reflect the current moment in American presidential politics. Taft “believed that the president, Congress, and the judiciary should filter public opinion to promote thoughtful deliberation by the people,” Rosen writes. “While Taft sympathized with the progressives' goal of ending corruption, he argued that 'the method they propose' – the initiative, referendum, and recall of judges – 'and the bitter class spirit they encourage are dangerous in the extreme, and if carried to their logical result will undermine just and enduring popular government.'”
Like all books-in-series, the “American Presidents” installments can be hit or miss. The books themselves are always uniformly short, and since some of their subjects have been chronicled many hundreds of times, some of their authors content themselves with handing in potted, dutiful accounts. The series is always at its best when the biographers do what Rosen does here: survey the pertinent literature and then liberally fill the resulting book with judgement calls, buttressed opinions, and rich synthesis. It's sadly likely that most readers coming to this brief biography will know next to nothing about Taft the President and nothing at all about Taft the Chief Justice, and it's refreshing that Rosen is equally strong on both periods – and their connections. “Taft was able to achieve as chief justice the constitutional vision that had eluded him as president,” Rosen writes, “exercising executive leadership that had been absent from the Court since the tenure of the greatest chief justice, John Marshall.”
This book won't take the place of an enormous full-dress biography of Taft, but that's never the goal in a series of this kind. In crafting a spirited, informed precis of a remarkable life, Rosen has done an excellent job.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.