“Unconventional” is right: a pleasing biography of a beer-drinking, card-playing, cigarette-smoking presidential wife who insisted on a place at the political table, paving the way for successors such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.
Nellie Taft, writes presidential historian/biographer Anthony (The Kennedy White House, 2001, etc.), the wife of Republican stalwart William Howard Taft, initially exercised political power as first among equals in her Cincinnati crowd. She would always be a Cincinnati chauvinist, reminding audiences that Chicago was poorer and Cleveland not worth mentioning; yet she hungered to get out and see the world, and when it appeared that her husband was happy where he was, she pushed him to run for successively more important public offices, finally the presidency. (She also, Anthony suggests, had more than a little to do with keeping the rivalry between Taft and his predecessor and onetime friend Teddy Roosevelt alive: see Patricia O’Toole’s recent When Trumpets Call , p. 39.) Less reform-minded than Roosevelt and perceived by big business as a “sugarplum president,” Taft muddled along, his wife steadily urging him on, but she seems to have opposed the one job he really wanted: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. She was also quite explicit in using the bully pulpit to advance women’s rights and other progressive issues; indeed, Anthony characterizes both Tafts as proponents of a “version of conservative progressivism” that had sharper teeth than today’s so-called compassionate conservatism. Nellie was personally liberal, which gave the scolds and moralists of her day plenty to cluck about; she also, though, held the usual class prejudices of her time, including old-school anti-Semitism (in Vienna in 1930, she complained that “generally the Jews here are awful, so objectionable”) and strong support for the Emperor of Japan, even as she suspected that Japan would soon go to war with the United States.
For good and ill—and, at times, to her husband’s chagrin—Nellie Taft was far from the standard-issue first lady. Anthony paints a vivid portrait.