Sunday, August 11, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Twenty-Seven, I Was Gonna Use "Taftastic" But Someone Else Already Invented The Word

Dammit, I hate it when other people beat me to the punch on being clever with words...

From James Monroe up to Teddy Roosevelt, I've been doing these Presidential character reviews operating blind: the person who came up with the idea, James David Barber, had only covered most of the 20th Century Presidents as well as the first four Presidents - Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison - as examples.  As a result, I've really only guessed - using my own interpretation of each President's actions and inactions - as to which guy followed which trait.  I'd like to think I'm correct, but with Professor Barber passed away it's not like I can forward my reviews for... um, review.

But from here on, I can refer entirely to Barber's work on the history and traits of William Howard Taft, and rely entirely on Barber's assertions that Taft was a Passive-Positive at heart.

By that I mean I can cheat and quote extensively from Barber's book Presidential Character (4th ed.), especially Chapter 7, pages 195 to 207.  ...what, I have to do my own summarizing still?!  Sigh. Fine...

Taft came into politics from by all accounts a loving boisterous family where his father worked as a lawyer and eventually served as judge: from this Taft got his love of people and love of law.  As a young man he dithered at a few jobs - court reporter, revenue collector, sharing a law office - but came into his own when at the age of 29 he secured a judgeship in Ohio.  A decent reputation as a jurist led to a federal career with the appellate courts, and all things looked good for Taft to work his way up to what had to be the job he coveted above all: a seat on the Supreme Court.

Except in 1900, when McKinley, needing someone to chair his oversight committee managing the newly acquired Philippines territory, put Taft in charge of a purely political operation.  Even though Taft had personally asked McKinley, a fellow Republican from Ohio, to consider him for the Court rather than this.

That Taft accepted is the first clue to his Passive-Positive nature: rather than turn down the offer, fearing it would hurt his chances elsewhere or at least his standing among the Republicans, Taft accepted.  His Compliant nature making itself known.

While Taft didn't run the commission for long, it bore some of his fingerprints: a focus on civil service reform, and a strong judiciary came out of the first few years that the commission worked.  He didn't run it for long because he quickly received the Governor-General's position to run the Philippines during what he viewed as a transition from colonial to self-rule.  His Pass-Pos skills of being well-liked served him well: he became popular with the Filipinos for his sincere efforts to fix what had become a corrupt system under Spanish rule, and he was popular back in the States for pacifying through sheer charm an annexed nation that had during the three years prior to his arrival been suffering a violent insurrection.

This is where a paradox seems to happen in Taft's biography: Roosevelt, liking the man on a personal level and respecting the work he'd done, offered Taft the big prize of filling an open seat on the Supreme Court.  Under normal circumstances, Taft would have jumped at the chance.  But he turned the offer down.  The best explanation the historians can come up with was that Taft didn't like to leave jobs unfinished: a stickler for the rules (of law, of common sense), he felt compelled to stay on in the Philippines because he knew the situation remained tenuous and didn't want to leave the mess to someone else (it didn't help that he was openly beloved as much as a Governor-General could be loved in occupied territory).

It's rare to note a Passive-Positive character showing a rigorous work ethic (any Actives) or focus to details (Active-Negative).  Then again, the charting alignment between the four traits is not static: there can be overlap of sorts between traits, where Taft may be a Pass-Pos but right along the border to an A-P or A-N.

But another thing: Taft accepted other posts from his good friend Roosevelt, such as becoming Secretary of War in 1904 as well as helping out with Roosevelt's election campaign that year.  Taft apparently took the Secretary job because it still allowed him some influence in handling the Philippines while moving him up the chain of command to where he could convince Roosevelt to grant him the Chief Justice job (by that point a mere Associate Justice's position would not do for Taft, still oddly ambitious for a Pass-Pos).  If that were true Taft misread the situation entirely, because when it came time and Roosevelt declined another term of office Taft suddenly found himself tabbed as the successor Presidential candidate in 1908.

It was his own damn fault.  Being a Passive-Positive at heart, it made him Compliant to the needs and opinions of those around him: and the one closest to him was Teddy Roosevelt, the most over-sized ego-driven Alpha personality our nation ever conceived.  Where Taft was big physically (from birth), Roosevelt was big in spirit and personality.  And where Roosevelt and Taft would agree on key points - a shared love of fairness and justice, Roosevelt's skill in working the legal system to his reformer's desires and Taft's unbending commitment to the law - it overwhelmed other points where Roosevelt and Taft could disagree, such as administration and effective governance.  Roosevelt merely saw a fellow progressive-minded Republican who shared with him a love of trust-busting, an empathy for the common people, and a desire to make the United States a major international force for GOODNESS AND JUSTICE (basically, it'd be like Roosevelt as Batman keen on putting Taft as Commissioner Gordon in a Bat-suit): for that alone he felt Taft could be trusted to serve as President and continue fighting the Good Fight.

But it was also Roosevelt's fault as well for not recognizing his friend Taft was Compliant and congenial at heart.  Once Roosevelt took his retirement off to places like Africa, it left a huge void in Taft's world when it came to role-models and advice-giving.  While Taft still carried on various trust-busting of various industries, he did so with a slowness and caution reflecting the more conservative elements of the pro-business Republican Party.  Taft still worked on an open-minded foreign and economic policy, but reacted to situations more than acted, and also relied on Cabinet members and a State Department that sometimes left him in the dark, such as the crisis along the Mexican border that Taft didn't know about until he met one-on-one with his ambassador while the Secretary of State was on vacation.

Taft's biggest weakness was a failure to play the political game: while he was well-liked personally, Taft just wasn't very good at either broadcasting his intentions (to give his allies an idea of what to do) or organizing political support around any issue.  After the Bully Pulpit years of Roosevelt, it left both Americans and elected officials cold and in the dark, hurting Taft's public standing.

When Roosevelt returned from his safari he found the situation not to his liking, and made a play for the Presidency for the 1912 election cycle.  Taft, caught between an angered friend, a diminished level of respect within his own party, and the judgment of history, made the decision to run for re-election against Roosevelt rather than step aside.  We can't fault Taft on this point: most Presidents in their first terms desire a shot at a second term to validate their success (the exceptions being the ones who promised to serve just the single term).  But it created the worst of both worlds: a divided party between two well-liked leaders.  When Taft won the nomination by being better at the rules than Teddy, his friend-turned-enemy took his ambitious A-P traits and formed his own Third Party platform, basically ensuring the Republicans would be split on Election Day and allow the Democratic candidate to win the White House.

Taft's post-Presidency years started off working at his alma mater Yale at the College of Law.  He notably railed against the 18th Amendment for Prohibition, predicting the adverse affect it would have on law enforcement and its' conflict with other Constitutional rights.  Taft eventually got the Chief Justice role he desired when the seat was available under the next Republican administration (1921).  By all accounts he served well as Chief Justice: he reformed the legal process, clearing up the docket by making SCOTUS more discretionary in choosing which cases to hear.  He also argued successfully for a separate Supreme Court building (the court up until then was serving in Congress' basement: Taft argued SCOTUS needed to be physically independent of the Legislative Branch), and it surprises me that nobody's gotten around to name the damn thing after him.

One other note: Taft is to date the last Unitarian President our nation has seen.  We've had three (four if you count Jefferson, but he's more Deist than anything), and if you ask me we need another one soon to help get the re-enforcement of the Separation of Church and State back in working shape...  but I digress.

Next Up: A Nixon Before We Really HAD Nixon In Office.

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