Jews Praying In The Synagogue on the Day of Atonement by Maurycy Gottlieb (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
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Thursday, February 16, 2017
Chief Executive to Chief Justice:Taft Betwixt the White House and the Supreme Court by Lewis L. Gould ,University Press of Kansas, 2014
The title of Lewis Gould’s new book from the University Press of Kansas gives away its subject even before you’ve glanced at the sub-title: only one person in American history has ever served as both President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and that person was William Howard Taft. Gould wrote an excellent short book in 2009 on Taft’s term in the Oval Office from 1909 to 1913, and it seems likely that he’s contemplating writing a history of Taft’s tenure as Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930, and the inherently illustrious nature of both those jobs makes this present volume, Chief Executive to Chief Justice so intriguing for the six Taft aficionados currently living on Earth: these are the wilderness years for Taft, an exile from public life that, as Gould rightly reports, began with a thud:
All the splendor of the highest office in the land vanished at noon on 4 March 1913, and he now had to fend for himself in an uncertain political future. He had prestige, talent as a lawyer, and the goodwill of the American people, but that was all.
Like so many First Couples since, Taft and his wife “Nellie” promptly turned to writing, but that was never for Taft the natural expedient that it was for his estranged friend Theodore Roosevelt; it had too much mongrel striving about it, and – no small thing with this particular man’s temperament – it was too often subject to the corrective precepts of other men. Taft wanted both freedom and esteem, and in short order he got it by being offered a teaching job at his old alma mater, Yale.
Gould has sifted through a large number of sources on this under-studied period of Taft’s life, and he’s able to draw some vivid pictures of Taft’s experiences at Yale as Kent Professor of Law. And as with so many stories concerning Taft, there’s a strong mixture of probity and – that nearly-universal Taftian referent – mirth:
When he stuck to his prepared text, Taft was a somewhat dry lecturer. What made his comments memorable occurred when something he said reminded him of an issue or problem he had confronted during his political career. After lowering his head and peering over his glasses, he would tell a story or anecdote that soon had “every man in the room … shaking with laughter.” But his course was anything but a cinch. “If you don’t study your lessons, you’ll regret it at the time of the examination.”
But academia – in Gould’s book and in his subject’s life – is only ever a sideshow, a pleasant distraction from the main goal of reaching the Supreme Court, a goal Taft had kept close to his heart for his entire life. He’d deferred the hope of it under the strong advice of his imperious wife and backstage-dealing brothers (not to mention out of loyalty to Roosevelt), but after his defeat at the polls to Woodrow Wilson (Gould takes a shade too much delight in constantly referring to that defeat as “crushing”), he surrendered to his distaste for politics and began a steadily-escalating campaign to help the Republicans strengthen their position to retake the White House – generally so that the principles he espoused would be running the country again, but specifically, and more importantly, so that a Republican President could appoint him to the High Court.
That appointment came in 1921, and Gould does a detailed and fast-paced job of filling in the intervening years. During those years, Taft backed Charles Evans Hughes for the 1916 presidential nomination (in order, as Gould says, to fulfill two goals simultaneously: “Woodrow Wilson had to be defeated and Theodore Roosevelt could not be the Republican presidential nominee”), and when the First World War broke out, he served on the National War Labor Board and campaigned vigorously for the League of Nations – the dream of Woodrow Wilson, whom he cordially hated. Gould mostly confines his narrative to the public spheres of Taft’s life, and his conclusions, though a bit pat, are certainly supported by the evidence. His genial subject lived best when he was serving some larger ideal than himself, so this interval out of the spotlight is bound to be a mixed showing of advocacy and trifling hypocrisies. As Gould puts it, “Taft’s eight years out of public office showed both his best and his worst qualities”:
As an advocate of world peace he had helped to launch the League to Enforce Peace and imparted much of the energy that to the organization achieved between 1915 and 1918 … Because of his obsession with achieving the post of chief justice of the United States in the event of a Republican presidency, Taft also indulged in some of his less attractive impulses. Revenge for perceived slights during his presidency motivated his opposition to Louis D. Brandeis in 1916. His reconciliation with Theodore Roosevelt owed more to Taft’s hatred for Woodrow Wilson than any real affection for his one-time friend and political partner.
The flip-side of the fact that Taft’s double-service to his country is unprecedented is that the periods of his life outside those services are necessarily less interesting, and Gould does as much as he can to counter that. It’s certainly an energetic enough job to thrill those aforementioned six Taft aficionados – and if there really is a future volume on the long-neglected Taft Court, well, it’ll have slightly better chance of finding a wider audience.