My Recent Chat With William Howard Taft
Covering politics for a living has always seemed to me to be a natural way to make a living, given how much I have been fascinated by the American presidency since childhood.
By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could name all of the presidents in order. Maybe that wasn’t an impressive trick, given the fact that I am now in my late 60s and there weren't so many of them back then.
But being so interested in the history of the presidency – my favorite author is Doris Kearns Goodwin – it has always made me wonder what it would be like to sit down and talk with presidents before my time. Can you imagine sitting down in the White House and listening to Abraham Lincoln's high-pitched voice? Or being in the White House map room with Franklin D. Roosevelt? Having a shot of Old Grand Dad bourbon with Harry Truman?
If I could only travel back in time…
Tuesday afternoon, I did the next best thing, in a second floor parlor of the William Howard Taft Historic Site, a two-story Greek Revival house on Auburn Avenue where the 27th president of the United States – and the only Cincinnatian elected president – was born in 1857 and grew up in until he went off to Yale College.
With a video crew recording, I sat across from Greg Hudson, a retired history teacher from Cincinnati, who has become the leading impersonator of Taft in the country. Greg is very witty, entertaining and informative as he tells Taft's story. Taft is well-known to most as the heaviest of presidents during his four years in office – from 1909 to 1913 – his weight was in the neighborhood of 335 to 340 pounds on his five-foot, 11-inch frame.
Greg's not that big – thankfully for him – but it is no stretch to imagine that you are in fact speaking to the 27th president when you speak with him.
We were taping a 15-20 minute segment for the annual Taft Day celebration, which comes on his birthday, Sept. 15.
I was asked to interview the president as if I were speaking to him when he was the Republican candidate in 1908, the handpicked successor to President Theodore Roosevelt. Taft was Roosevelt's Secretary of War.
Greg and I had several phone conversations last week, and we decided that instead of putting the interview in the context of his first campaign for president, we would choose as our location in time and space 1920 – Taft was out of the White House and teaching at Yale; and he was about one year away from being appointed Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by a fellow Ohioan, President Warren G. Harding.
Reaching the Supreme Court had been Taft's dream job since he was a young lawyer in his 20s in Cincinnati.
We talked a lot about Taft's wife, the former Helen Herron of Cincinnati, who was known to most people as "Nellie." They had three children, Robert A., a long-time U.S. Senator from Ohio who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination; Helen Taft Manning, an educator who served many years as dean of Bryn Mawr College; and Charles P. Taft, who was a longtime Cincinnati councilman and mayor, and one of the original Charterites who crushed the corrupt GOP political bosses in the 1920s.
Nellie Taft was not only the love of his life, but his closest political adviser and, in effect, campaign manager. She had very keen political instincts and watched out for her husband's political interests like a hawk.
During Taft's one term as president, Roosevelt became more and more disillusioned with the Ohioan he had essentially put into office, believing Taft was too much of a conservative when it came to trust-busting. Roosevelt split the Republican Party and left to form his own third party – The Progressive, or "Bull Moose" party.
With Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the race, Roosevelt split the GOP vote and Wilson was easily elected in the 1912 election. Taft came in a distant third, winning only Utah and Vermont for a total of eight electoral votes.
"Theodore cost me a second term,'' Hudson said, in the person of Taft. "We had been such great friends and political allies."
Taft and Roosevelt had both been out of office for several years when Taft was in the Willard Hotel in Washington, very near the White House. He looked in the dining room and saw Roosevelt at a table, dining alone.
Taft joined Roosevelt at the table and they spent the afternoon talking over happier times.
"By the end, we had mended fences,'' Taft said. "And I am so very glad we did."