William Howard Taft, Culture Warrior

Taft 2012: A Novel
Jason Heller
Quirk Books, 320 pp, $14.95

Imagine the ghost of William Howard Taft hijacked to serve as a spokesman for the snarky secular Left. That’s what seems to be happening in the social-media campaign accompanying the new novel Taft 2012, a satire in which Taft gets caught in a time warp and emerges in the present day as a most unlikely presidential candidate.

The jolly, avuncular, corpulent Taft is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents. If he is remembered today it is for his size — he weighed more than 300 pounds — and for coming in a resounding third as the incumbent in a three-man presidential race in 1912. (His 1908 campaign song: “Get on a Raft with Taft.”) “Big Bill” Taft, governor-general of the Philippines and secretary of war under Theodore Roosevelt, didn’t really want the presidency as much as his wife Nellie wanted it for him, but he was bitterly hurt when his friend and patron TR turned on him and became his rival, sealing his re-election defeat, to Woodrow Wilson. Taft’s true desire — happily later realized — was to be chief justice of the Supreme Court: he remarked in the 1920s, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.” He did invent the seventh-inning stretch and throwing out the first ball on Opening Day, and was part of a remarkable five-generation Ohio family political legacy that included his son, “Mister Conservative,” Senator Robert Taft. But he tends to be remembered today for being the only president ever to get stuck in the bathtub, which is why some of us maintain a soft spot for the old boy, joining Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl in the toast, “God Bless President Taft” — and welcoming the recent release of the novel Taft in 2012.

In the new book by pop-culture journalist Jason Heller, the 27th president is preparing for the inauguration of his successor, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913 when he is caught in a time warp and transported, Rip van Winkle-like, to the present day. He awakens flabbergasted — and hungry: “I will gladly grant a Cabinet position, of your choice, to the first upright citizen who brings me pudding cake and a nice Lobster Thermidor,” he declares. Taft discovers Twinkies and Wii Golf, meets his great-granddaughter, a congresswoman from Ohio, and her biracial family, becomes a media sensation, and after he is made sick by processed food manufactured by a sinister conglomerate, becomes immersed in a new campaign for the presidency, inveighing against the “foisting of unwholesome foods on the American public.”

Part Confederacy of Dunces, part Meet John Doe, this satire on today’s political and media culture is a fanciful if cartoony diversion. His grassroots supporters project their causes onto Taft, seeing him as an empty vessel to be filled with their hopes and aspirations.

In their social-media campaign to promote Taft 2012 the book’s publishers appear to be doing the same thing.

From website and Twitter and Facebook, candidate “William” holds forth on issues of the day. In his guise as blogger and tweeter, the champion of the GOP Old Guard of 1912 has become the Daily Show’s — dare we say the Daily Kos’ — idea of a common-sense independent; a Progressive, no longer a Republican; Lincoln Chafee as walrus. Determinedly non-partisan (after a decidedly liberal Democratic fashion) he tweaks Rick Santorum for wielding “the word ‘theology’ the way a thug wields a club” and “Two Bit Mitt” for not paying his fair share in taxes, and allows that this Barack Obama seems a fine fellow. He is dismayed at what has become of his old Republican Party. “My heart has been cleft in twain by this sad, bedraggled tatterdemalion that once was my beloved GOP,” he writes. He expresses the wish that the party, in his day, “a beacon of Progress,” would evolve into “a GOP that will not view the lawful Separation of Church and State to be a war on religion” (i.e., Tippecanoe and the HHS mandate, too); that will “not fear the vital and essential enlightenment of Science” (i.e., there’ll be a hot time for embryonic stem cell research tonight); and that “will not sanctimoniously preach fiscal restraint while allowing corporations and the wealthy to evade their fair responsibilities” (i.e., never mind your Lobster Thermidor; eat the rich).

Of course he ardently champions a “woman’s reproductive choice” — it not having taken long for him to embrace the sanitized euphemism favored in NARAL talking points. “The attacks on reproductive choice—both contraception and abortion—have been fervent of late,” he declares. “Granted, I have been asleep for a century, so my knowledge of the current situation had to come from books, colleagues, and the Internet. But it seems to be that this issue was decided by the Supreme Court, definitively, forty years ago.

“Allow me to make my position clear: Should the American people grant me the honor of a second term as President this November, I will uphold Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, I will defend it passionately against all those who would seek to curtail it… [U]ltimately, our own conscience must dictate the course of our moral current. In that light, the issue becomes simple. A woman’s body is her own. I would not ask her to surrender that sovereignty any more than I would ask her to dial back the clock a hundred years and relinquish her right to vote.

“This stance may not make me popular among certain segments of my following. So be it. I have been chastised for my inclusive faith and progressive beliefs before. The cause of progress is larger than me, or any one of us. And it is certainly larger than those certain stunted souls who would forge fresh chains for the women of America.”

You know, I can’t help but think Old Bill is being ill-used here, dragooned by the folks in the publishing house’s marketing department as a soldier in the culture war, to proclaim — in the name of independent-minded common sense — the conventional wisdom of the Secular Left. This says more about their politics and assumptions than Taft’s.

Not that the real Taft’s record doesn’t provide some fodder for the Planned Parenthood-inclined. As a Supreme Court justice in the 1920s he did join with Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis in a majority opinion upholding compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.” Eugenics is not a pro-life virtue.

That said, being a cad about dispensing with unplanned pregnancies was frowned upon in those days. Theodore Roosevelt, paragon of the Progressive movement, described in his autobiography how as governor of New York he had refused pardons to men who had seduced girls and induced them to commit abortions. Such requests for leniency made him angry, he wrote; indeed, in one such case, he had responded to the petitioners that he “extremely regretted” it was not in his power to increase the sentence.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that Taft, like TR, would be aghast at the likes of Sandra Fluke. Nonetheless, on his blog, our good-hearted blimp of an ex-president who is scandalized by corporate malfeasance in the processing of food embraces as Progress an industry that takes the lives of more than a million unborn children a year in the United States.

While we cannot say with certainty how a person from a century ago would react to modern developments, I am willing to bet that William Howard Taft, awakening in our time, would find the abortion license shocking. How many generations does it take to become inured to the abhorrent? Can it happen overnight?

If Bill Taft’s time machine pointed him in the direction of 1857, and they had the Internet back then, would he be tweeting favorably on the Dred Scott decision as settled law — the disregard for another’s personhood in the name of one’s own liberty being at the heart of defenses of both slavery and “reproductive choice”?

As a fan of one our most overlooked and under-appreciated presidents, whose heart was as big as his avoirdupois, I would like to think that he would not. At least I would hope he would not. Am I projecting my own beliefs onto this imaginary Taft? Perhaps.

True conservatism celebrates human complexity and quirkiness, which our man Taft had in spades, and which thus makes him a conservative’s delight. Beware those who approach the making of government with a cookbook, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott warned. That goes double for the social-media people who have given this latter-day incarnation of the gourmand Taft his recipe book.


2 responses to “William Howard Taft, Culture Warrior

  1. Taft 2012: clever, but more obnoxious than clever. Almost as obnoxious as the Left co-opting Jesus as a spokesman for class warfare (in my face on Facebook for the past few months). I imagine there are plenty more examples, like Obama’s co-opting the words of Lincoln and Reagan and changing their meaning. (Change I can’t believe in.) They are takers, not makers.

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