My recent post about portly presidents prompted me to do some thinking and reading about William Howard Taft, the 27th president, and a one-term conservative wedged between the progressive presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Taft deserves more consideration than he has generally received. He is likely to remain the only president to have also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a lifelong ambition of his that was realized when president Harding named the retired Taft to that post in 1921. Thus, one link between Taft and Coolidge is the fact that it was Taft who swore in Coolidge as president in 1925.
Another link is that Taft and Coolidge, besides the unfortunate Harding, were the last 19th century presidents in the sense that they held a strictly limited view of the constitutional powers of the presidency. Taft was severely criticized, and remains out of favor with historians, for having abandoned the “progressive” Republican stance of his mentor Roosevelt. Coolidge was similarly criticized as a stand-patter who did not use the powers of the presidency to stave off economic collapse and who even was reluctant to engage the federal government in disaster relief.
Taft held Coolidge in high esteem. On June 5, 1927 he wrote to his son shortly before Coolidge made his famous “I Do Not Choose To Run” statement:
“Coolidge amuses me greatly. I think he is a very long-headed politician. I think he has made a very good President. My only criticism of him would be his selection of men, because I don’t think he has good judgment in that regard, and he hasn’t done as well by us in the selection of Judges as he might, although he has appointed some good ones. Still he would make a great deal better President than Al Smith and his continuance in office would give a stability to our Government and the progress of the country that would be worth a great deal.”
About a year later, and indicative of some uncertainty that apparently still remained about whether or not Coolidge would be open to be drafted by a GOP convention, Taft wrote perceptively:
“Coolidge will not run. I don’t think his wife is in good condition and I don’t think he is, and he does not want to run, and he is a man who ordinarily does not do what he does not want to.” This may be tinged with a little envy on Taft’s part, in that he had been pushed largely against his will into the presidency, a post he did not enjoy.
This blog will return to the interesting subject of Taft and his presidency at a later date. Meanwhile, here is one photograph showing Chief Justice Taft and Calvin Coolidge together (with Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles). Notably, the always hefty Taft was off his peak weight in his Supreme Court years. Psychologically versed historians have linked the ups and downs of Taft’s weight to his enjoyment of the various high offices he held, with overeating compensating for the pressures and disappointments of his presidency.