A perceptive biography of William Howard Taft (1857-1930).
Serving from 1909 to 1913, Taft was never the most admired president, but he was an intelligent man dogged by strict principles and a lack of political acumen. So argues Atlantic contributing editor Rosen (Law/George Washington Univ.; Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, 2016), the CEO of the National Constitution Center, who does not conceal his admiration, describing him as a likable figure who preferred the law to politics. An excellent solicitor general and federal judge, he became a popular figure after William McKinley appointed him governor of the Philippines in 1900 where he proved a superb administrator. Already a friend, Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War in 1903, and he became the president’s right-hand man, troubleshooter, and chosen successor. Roosevelt was not aware that Taft, who loved the law above all, believed that a president must never exercise powers beyond those specifically granted by the Constitution. Within a year of taking office, when Taft made this clear and fired Roosevelt’s more activist officials, the former president took bitter offense. Rosen emphasizes that Taft shared Roosevelt’s progressive views on conservation and trust-busting and sometimes went far beyond (he favored a world court). Sadly, Roosevelt’s hostility and Congress’ delight at a president they could safely ignore made his administration a painful experience. When Roosevelt announced his candidacy for the 1912 Republican nomination, he remained America’s most popular figure, but party leaders, immune to his charm, engineered Taft’s renomination. Roosevelt ran anyway, and Taft finished a poor third in a three-way race, but the story had a happy ending when President Warren Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1921 where he did an outstanding job.
A legal scholar, Rosen sympathizes with Taft’s strict constitutionalism more than many readers will, but he makes a convincing case that he was a conscientious president who did his best.