Monday, September 8, 2014

This Day in Senate History (Robert Taft, Linchpin of Political Dynasty, Born)

September 8, 1889—Robert A. Taft, the middle figure in an Ohio family that, over five generations, held the highest offices in their state or the federal government, was born in Cincinnati. His dad, William Howard Taft, a state judge at the time, jovially wrote of his eight-pound son: “I am obliged to give judgment to those who contend that the boy is one of the most remarkable products of this century.”

The tragedy of Will Taft’s life was in winning the Presidency, an office he did not want; the tragedy of Robert’s was that he pursued the same office more aggressively without ever achieving it.

As much as he valued his forebears, Robert was also keenly conscious of the burden of the legacy. The family name, this leader of the conservative wing of the GOP noted, "supplies the impetus which gives a man his start, but that impetus does not last forever. After the start is made, it is only by his own effort that a man can keep going, and one with a family name has a lot to live up to."

The Tafts, while hardly perfect, managed to “live up to” the burden of public service without the shattering traumas endured by others. An article I came across on America’s top 10 political dynasties ranks the Tafts at only #7. But I would move them up at least several notches. Consider the principal figures in this remarkable family:

*Alphonso Taft (1810-1891), one of the founders of the Republican Party in Ohio, served as Attorney-General and Secretary of War in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, and later as U.S. minister to Austria-Hungary and Russia.

*William Howard Taft (1857-1930) did not immediately get his heart’s desire—appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—because he wanted to see an important job (Governor-General of the Philippines) through, then later because, against his better judgment, he was persuaded by his wife to accept Theodore Roosevelt's anointing as his successor for President. What followed was the breakup of his friendship with TR, loss of his reelection bid in 1912, and a sundering of the Republican Party between its conservative and more moderate wings that has lasted the good part of a century.

*Robert Taft (1889-1953) did not won the nomination of his party in three tries, but he won the respect of Senate colleagues who nicknamed him “Mr. Republican” and elected him Senate Majority Leader.

*Robert Taft Jr. (1917-1993) also was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

*Robert (Bob) Taft III (1942-) served as governor of Ohio for two terms.  His no-contest plea to charges of accepting undisclosed gifts ended not only his own political career but also, in all probability, the extraordinary influence his family had exerted in the state over 150 years.

This post was originally intended as a “Quote of the Day,” which, given that Monday is the start of a workweek, I usually reserve for humor. I hoped to include a sample from Senator Taft. The closest I could find, from his statement opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program in February 1941, was the following:

“Lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum—you certainly don’t want the same chewing gum back.”

If you don’t think the result displayed here ranks with Letterman, Fallon or Kimmel, too bad. Had I realized beforehand how arduous my self-imposed assignment would be—how many vast, deserted cybertracts I would have to traverse to come up with even this—I would never have taken it on.

Reading the statement from which this quote came, I doubt that Taft—admired by friend (and even foe) for his ferocious intellect and diligence—had a ghostwriter work on it. (At a time when this was becoming more the norm in Washington, he disdained the practice.) It’s filled with the kind of thoughtful, cogent constitutional arguments he would have made in college at Yale and Harvard Law School.

But I strongly suspect that Taft would have solicited opinions in order to come up with this line. Put it this way: if you were an overachiever in high school and college—if you were the son not only of a President but of a formidable First Lady—what are the chances you would have even touched chewing gum, let alone chewed it?

Actually, the quip reveals a great deal about Taft. He was looking to counter FDR’s folksy, effective line supporting Lend Lease: that the unusual deal between the U.S. and Britain would be like a hose used to put out a neighbor’s fire. But FDR’s metaphor was not out of place with either his normal way of talking or this statement in particular. Taft’s was, on both counts. I think that the electorate sensed this incongruity.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about Senator Taft lately as I struggle to make sense of how he might have fit in given our current political environment. In certain ways, the current hue and cry over GOP obstruction of the President’s program would have sounded awfully familiar to Taft.

From the moment he entered the Senate in 1939, there was hardly any aspect of FDR’s program, foreign or domestic, that he did not oppose. He not only saw the New Deal as a nightmare, but feared that the President’s crypto-interventionism would involve the United States in a bloody second world war.

It was just as bad with Truman, as Taft opposed (unsuccessfully) the creation of NATO and (successfully) the President’s health-care program.  The President took the measure of Taft and his other Republican opponents with jibes about the “Do-Nothing Congress”  en route to his 1948 re-election victory.

That fierce partisanship would have formed a bond between Taft and today’s GOP.

In other crucial senses, though, Taft would not have felt at home in today’s political world in general or the Republican Party in particular.

In interviews in advance of the premiere of his documentary series The Roosevelts later this month, director Ken Burns has indicated that neither Teddy nor Franklin Roosevelt could have achieved high office, given current political conditions. The same is even more true for Taft. 

Already by the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Taft’s dry, statistics-laden speeches did not lend themselves to the dominant medium of the age—radio—and he was at a distinct disadvantage against Franklin Roosevelt, the master of the fireside chat.

But by temperament as well, Robert Taft would have been an odd man out.  While the undisputed leader of conservatives (the same wing of the GOP that backed his father against Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive insurgency), he still was ready to stake out certain positions that cut no ice with his constituency: opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and backing of federal housing and aid to education. 

Whether one agrees or not with his opposition to the Nuremberg Trials, his reasoning--that the proceedings would constitute a dangerous precedent for "victors' justice"--could not have been more sincere. That stance, made in the teeth of great public disapproval, helped earn Taft a place in a bestselling book by a young senator who had only gotten to know the Majority Leader for a few months before the latter's death of cancer: John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.

Essentially secular by personal conviction as well as family conviction (his grandfather wrote a key precedent on prayer in the state, and his father’s Unitarianism became an issue, briefly and foolishly, in the 1908 campaign), Taft would have been out of step in today’s more evangelically-oriented GOP.

Deeply private, disdaining gladhanding while campaigning, Taft would also have felt that today’s 24-hour news environment was overly intrusive.

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