Walk around downtown Cincinnati and you'll find statues of three presidents: William Henry Harrison, James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln. What you won't find is a statue honoring the one president who was actually born in Cincinnati. WVXU's Bill Rinehart wondered why in the new series, OKI Wanna Know.
There is a statue of William Howard Taft in Cincinnati, but it's not honoring his presidency, as historian Dan Hurley is quick to point out. "Most people don't know about the statue because it's tucked on the UC campus behind the current law school. But it's there. It's a substantial statue. Anything dealing with William Howard Taft has to be substantial. It's eight feet tall."
However, this statute honors Taft as Supreme Court chief justice, not president. Hurley says that's appropriate. "Taft always had wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. President was not his goal. He ended up being president for a whole bunch of political reasons."
Hurley says Taft was a great administrator through his life, and that's shown in his service as governor of the Philippines, the secretary of war and as chief justice.
Blogger and historian Greg Hand says Taft doesn't get people excited like some other presidents. "Lincoln basically gave some speeches here; he lived here for a couple of weeks while he was working on a lawsuit. We've got statues to Lincoln all over the place. Taft was in many ways important for the city and important for the country, but I don't think he's recognized the same way."
Hand says those other presidents all died in office while Taft survived the job. "The martyrdom of Lincoln still resonates today. Although Garfield does not have the same sort of legacy, the outpouring of grief when he was assassinated really charged the city. They wanted to name everything for Garfield," Hand says. "Big Bill died peacefully in his sleep and that takes away from the romance of your legacy."
Dramatic death or not, Taft's efforts are seen today, locally and nationally. He pushed for the Supreme Court to have its own building. He merged two competing Cincinnati law schools. He started the tradition of presidents throwing out the first pitch at baseball games.
And prominently placed statue or not, Taft is remembered and honored in his hometown. Congress named his Mount Auburn home a National Historic Site in 1964.
"A group of teachers first had the vision to want to save this old home," says Kerry Wood, chief of interpretation, education and operations ranger with the National Park Service. "They called themselves the Taft Memorial Association.
"With him being the only person to be president and chief justice, they wanted to commemorate him. A decision was made to go back to his early roots."
Today, there's also a local brewery that plays off his name and image, a county government building on Ninth Street, and William Howard Taft Road, which Hurley points out ends near the site of the UC Law College. "He had graduated from the Cincinnati College of Law. Then when the University of Cincinnati is founded, he was appointed to the dean of the new law department, and then they merged the two schools."
And that's where the Chief Justice Taft statue is.
Ranger Kerry Wood has a theory on why there isn't a President Taft statue. "He's a person who came at a time where statues had slowed down. I know in the 19th century, statues were big, with him being a 20th century president."
Hand says there may be something to that idea: There aren't many representational statues erected in public parks anymore. He says if there's a list of local "who's who's" to honor with a statue, Taft would be on it. "The thing is since he's gone to his reward, we've had quite a number of outstanding people in Cincinnati and I think he'd have to fight himself into the top 10."
Hurley isn't sure the political climate is right, with Cincinnati and Hamilton County now a Democrat stronghold.
"Who's going to lead that fight to bring a statue of a past Republican president (and) supreme court justice to downtown Cincinnati?"
For now, there is another statue of Taft on public display but it's in South Dakota. Rapid City has statues of all past presidents. The Taft figure is leaning forward, preparing to throw a baseball.
Editor's note: This story was produced before the national dialogue about statues began.
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