WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: An Intimate History by Judith Icke Anderson

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT: An Intimate History

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Anderson has some plausible points to make about the amiable, ponderous Taft, a worthy officeholder out-of-his-element as chief executive; and she puts them across--relentlessly. Her lead-off ""paradox,"" however, is a red herring: ""how could Taft, a man politically unambitious, be catapulted into ever higher national offices and ultimately win the presidency, a triumph he feared and dreaded?"" Other Taft biographers, she writes, speak of fate or destiny; she will show the influence of ""his wife, family, and friends."" But while Henry Pringle, author of the most compendious life, speaks of ""the fates,"" he does so figuratively; he also states unequivocally (as have others) that it was Mrs. Taft who wanted William to be president. And Pringle also says all that Anderson has to say about Taft the miscast president: he had the faults of his virtues, and lacked some qualities he needed. What Anderson does demonstrate--and the book, constantly anticipating future events, is more demonstration than biography--are just how much Taft wanted to please others and, a new element: the relationship between his corpulence, the pressures on him, and his eagerness to please. In a year that has brought us the formative influence of TR's asthma (in David McCullough's splendid Mornings on Horseback) and the crucial effects of Wilson's strokes (in Edwin Weinstein's forthcoming medical and psychological study), it is not inappropriate to take account of Taft's obesity--the likelihood that he overate as a child because he felt inadequate to the demands of his zealous parents; that his geniality, lethargy, and sensitivity to criticism were consequences; that he reached his greatest, most disabling weight in the White House (a whopping 355 pounds) when the pressures and criticism became intolerable. He dropped down to 259 pounds, Anderson points out, during his happier, newly-independent years as chief justice: the post he had always coveted. And, as a picture of the president as a fat fugitive from over-responsibility, her first chapter can't be faulted. But by the end of the second chapter, on Taft's childhood, we know the beginning and end of the story, and all the major themes; what chiefly remains is to add a wife like his mother (but ""even more focused"") and a cynosure/sponsor like TR (who genuinely appreciated Taft's faithful service as Secretary of War, and ""sensed how important that reassurance was to him""). On these matters, Anderson highlights what others have subordinated to Taft's public life. When occasionally she differs, in interpreting political developments (e.g., the imbroglio over the dismissal of forester Gifford Pincher), she is not necessarily to be credited. But that is incidental: while this is single-minded, drumming psychobiography, it does not have the egregious shortcomings of the Jefferson and Nixon biographies of Anderson's acknowledged mentor, the late Fawn Brodie. Anyone less interested in a life-story, personal or political, than in the workings of its formative elements, will not find it without value.

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 1981
Publisher: Norton