The American Presidents series of short biographies can be a helpful option when trying to read through the lives of each of our presidents. In some cases, they represent the best take you’ll find currently in print and the series features some of our finest historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson. At the same time, this series is painfully uneven and Jeffrey Rosen’s latest addition, Willian Howard Taft, should be considered among the lesser entries in the series.
My main issue is Rosen’s willingness to brush aside Taft’s poor performance as president in favor of a larger argument about his love for the Constitution and his time as a judge, both before and after his time in the White House. While Rosen certainly makes a strong case for Taft’s strengths as a jurist, he brushes aside Taft’s shortcomings as president while also overlooking some questionable constitutional decisions. As most biographies of Taft will show, and Rosen is no different, Taft was ill-suited for the office and politics in general. He thrived in positions of near total authority, either as governor-general in the Philippines or as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This stark divide seems crucial in evaluating Taft, but Rosen does not seem overly concerned with its importance.
From the start, Rosen holds Taft to a different standard, albeit one to which Taft held himself. He writes, “This short book offers an interpretation of William Howard Taft’s presidency as he himself understood it: in constitutional rather than political terms” (4). This may have been how Taft viewed the presidency, but it seems important that he disregarded the political aspect of the highest political office in the country. To avoid critiquing him for that feels like a cop out, even if you do see merits in his view of the office. After all, Rosen quotes Taft as saying, “I will not play a part for popularity…If the people do not approve of me…after they have had time to know me, then I shall not let it worry me, and I most certainly shall not change my methods” (5). I can’t help but wonder what the presidency is if it is not a political position based, on some level, of winning public approval.
In fairness, Rosen acknowledges Taft’s odd take on the office when evaluating his presidency. “For all of Taft’s judicial virtues…he cannot be considered an entirely successful president because successful presidents need to exercise the popular leadership Taft disdained” (6). And yet Rosen believes that this is ultimately something we should view in Taft’s favor. “Taft saw the president’s role as that of a kind of chief magistrate who would promote thoughtful deliberation among the people’s representatives without directly representing the people’s momentary passions. Seen in this light, Taft’s political vice was a constitutional virtue…based on principle and not personality” (7). It seems that both Taft and his biographer miss the main point of their jobs. Taft wanted the presidency to be something it wasn’t, and Rosen wants to write an admiring biography of a weak president without accounting for that weakness.
Rather than simply highlighting Taft’s failures as president, he reframes them as moments worthy of celebration for their principled stands. For example, Taft called a special session of Congress in 1909 to encourage passage of the Payne-Aldrich Act, which would raise tariffs on certain goods. It was a controversial move that angered many of Taft’s fellow Republicans and set the stage for the rift that would push the Progressives out of the party. Much of the displeasure arose from Taft’s refusal to do more than send a vague message to the special session he called for. After all, if it was important enough to call a special session, it would make sense that the president would play an active role. But as Rosen sees it, Taft’s restrained behavior is a positive thing. “They had anticipated a state paper of historic importance and presidential leadership, but Taft sent them a 340-word message that he composed in fifteen minutes that morning” (56). This was a disaster for Taft politically and his cavalier approach to the message seems like an understandable point of contention. Yet Rosen prefers to see it as “a masterpiece of concision” (57). But doesn’t the tossed off nature of Taft’s composition make it seem less like a masterpiece and more like an act of political disregard? It’s in these moments where Rosen steers clear of justified criticism that I find his work the most problematic.
The preference for the Supreme Court comes across as a purely positive part of Taft’s career. But Rosen passes over a deeply troubling component of the president’s approach to the Court. While president, Taft has the chance to appoint a Chief Justice and has a perfect candidate in the respected Charles Evans Hughes. But Taft wanted the position for himself. As Rosen puts it, “Taft instead elevated…Justice Edward Douglas White, a Catholic Southern Democrat who, at the reassuringly advanced age of sixty-five, was the oldest chief justice ever nominated. The only explanation for the unusual appointment was the president’s hope that White would expire in time for Taft to take his place” (111). What’s particularly maddening about this moment is Rosen’s decision to present this without any judgment. How is the exclusion of a worthy candidate in favor of someone who is only useful because he may die not a significant issue? It seems particularly important when the entire premise of the book is Taft’s deep respect for the judicial branch. If Taft respected the Court as deeply as Rosen would have us believe surely he would rather make the right choice for the good of the Court than for his own selfish interests. Yet Rosen does not even defend Taft on this point.
Ultimately, Rosen would have been better served writing a short book on Taft the jurist rather than adding his take on the presidency. That’s where Rosen’s interests are and I don’t fault him for seeing praiseworthy aspects of Taft’s character in that role. But I found myself repeatedly frustrated by his continued reluctance to call the president to account for behavior that is an undeniable failure of presidential leadership. Therefore, I would not recommend this short volume to a reader hoping to find a better understanding of Taft’s time in the White House.
Two stars out of a possible four