Mr. Taft inherited with the presidency many difficulties. The chief one, perhaps, is that of being judged on his merits. It is hard for people to see him as he is, standing, as he has had to, in the shadow of a mighty name. Comparisons were inevitable; and multitudes were certain to find them odious. Ask what chance Antoninus had when following Hadrian, Caprivi becoming Chancellor next to Bismarck, Rosebery catching up the mantle of Gladstone, and you get some measure of Taft's handicap in being President after Roosevelt. The succession may have been apostolic, but it carried from the first a threat of martyrdom for the successor.
Nor was it mere sequence. We must frankly note an added reason why the lenses through which most Americans have necessarily gazed at the new President were distorting—the fact, namely, that he had obviously been made such by the old one. It was with Mr. Taft a plain case of fit. However admirable his equipment for the presidency, he actually became president by the will of another. Van Buren was not so openly placed in the White House by Jackson as Taft was by Roosevelt. In both cases the favor was admitted by the beneficiaries. Van Buren professed it to be his ambition to walk in the footsteps of Jackson. So did Roosevelt promise to 'carry out' the policies of McKinley. It has been said that he did —he carried them out and buried them.
President Taft in his first inaugural referred to the reforms initiated by 'my distinguished predecessor,' and pledged himself to their maintenance and enforcement.' But such professions, such acknowledgments, are more graceful than sincere. No man in high office can be content to be merely the echo of another —no matter how loud the noise the other may have made. How can any president really dream that time will not bring unforeseen problems which he must meet in his own strength? Van Buren had to face a financial crisis, in confronting which no help could come to him from the Hermitage. President Taft was soon in an unknown sea of troubles, and was compelled to pull his own oar. That he would have to set up for himself was fated. It lay in the nature of his office and the nature of the case. If there is no initiative in the presidency it is nothing. Mr. Taft was not the man to play Buchanan's role of a Public Functionary. He simply was forced to permit new occasions to teach new duties. Yet he could not escape the haunting measure of achievement acquiesced in by himself, insisted upon by the zealously watchful friends of the man who had made him president. With that bias thus existing, a calm and fair judgment of Mr. Taft is hard to arrive at. We have to look at him against a magnified background.
This, however, only makes the need of an impartial estimate of Mr. Taft's quality the more urgent. And an analysis of his nature in action should not shrink from being personal. Bagehot complained that English political criticism was not sufficiently personal. Americans might think that they could safely plead not guilty to that charge! But what Bagehot meant was that public men should not be judged in a partisan way, nor even by their speeches or their acts alone, but that a steady and penetrating gaze should be fixed upon their essential characteristics, their ways of thought and of work, their whole intellectual and moral outlook; in a word, their personality. From such an effort to interpret a public man and really to 'place' him, we may learn more than we possibly can from any enumeration of his outward activities, his successes, or his failures. The 'campaign biographies' will here be passed by; no formal enumeration of Mr. Taft's 'services 'will be attempted; party laudation will be ignored equally with party decrying; and the endeavor will be made to discover, rather, the man in habit as he is. This can involve no wrong to any one who is entitled to be reckoned among 'the princes of mankind'; for, as Lord Rosebery has said, 'They gain by that scrutiny which would kill and damn lesser beings.'
Now, the slightest scrutiny of Mr. Taft, the most casual approach to him, reveals a personality of singular charm. The testimony on this point is conclusive; the voice of the witnesses is as the sound of many waters. The President has wonderfully winning ways. Seen but once or seen often, the impress he makes is both pleasing and wholesome. In his presence one can understand the story which Horace Greeley told of Clay. When General Glascock of Georgia took his seat in Congress, a friend asked, 'General, may I introduce you to Henry Clay?' 'No, sir,' was the stern reply, 'I am his adversary, and choose not to subject myself to his fascination!' It is, not that Mr. Taft has the magnetism attributed to Clay. He does not thrill or inspire; he does not bind men to himself by passionate admiration. But his unaffected simplicity and kindness, his genial face, which is the outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, the magnanimity and charity of the man, combine to make him exceedingly likable. He can be called 'our beloved President' in a more literal and personal sense than many of whom that phrase has been lightly used.
It is not necessary to labor through an explanation of Mr. Taft's personal attractiveness to so many sorts and conditions of men. Probably it would, like many charming things, defy complete analysis. But there is one element of it that should not be overlooked. This is the unpretentious democracy of the man. We know that there is such a thing as a kind of insistent and noisy democratic spirit wearing equality on the sleeve for daws to peck at; slapping Caesar's self upon the back; for effect, throwing official dignity to the winds; being, in a word, ostentatiously democratic so as to be seen of men. But all this may go with an instinct and a mental attitude that are wholly patrician. One who appears to be a clamorous democrat may really be laying to his soul the flattering unction that he is born with a divine right to rule; and at the very time when he is prostrating himself before the multitude, may be filled with a haughty sense of his own superiority. But there is nothing of this in Mr. Taft. Democracy is for him the air he breathes. It is native to him. Without a particle of pose or the least suspicion of veiled condescension, he moves naturally among his fellow-citizens as one who never boasts about his all-embracing democracy, but who, without once raising a question about it, wears it as easily and unconsciously as his coat. There has been no president in the time of living men more genuinely democratic than William Howard Taft.
His simplicity, however, and his good nature carry in them perils for an executive. They may denote a certain laxness of fibre, a want of drive and thrust. Mr. Taft, so tolerant and kindly, is sometimes too tolerant of delay, too long-suffering with insubordination, too patient with lack of discipline and energy. There is undeniably in him a streak of dilatoriness —almost of indolence. He can, on occasion, lock himself up and work with a relentless and giant industry. But too often business has a way of piling up on his desk. He writes speeches in his car on the way to deliver them. Complaint has been made of his frequent absences from Washington; but even when he is there, matters have sometimes to wait long for his decision, his department heads having to ask again and again for the final word. The resulting situation in Washington recalls the question asked of Lord Hartington, who was habitually procrastinating: 'How do you get through your work?' His frank answer was, 'I don't.'
It was doubtless a wise saying of a public man that most letters would answer themselves if let alone. But one must have a sure eye for those which it will never do to let alone. And some executive functions brook no adjournment. Appointments must be made, positive orders given on time; else the whole service will tend to grow limp. If it comes to waiting, men in minor offices can always out-wait their chief. They move listlessly enough even when he drives hard. Lord Cromer, it is true, declared that his success in Egypt at the time of the Khartum expedition, was mainly due to the fact that he 'abstained from a mischievous activity.' But there is such a thing as mischievously abstaining from activity, and President Taft has sometimes shown us what it is. Administrative thorns have sprung up while he slept and he has had later to seize and them out when early vigilance would have saved him that pain.
No estimate, however, of Mr. Taft's temper as an executive would be at all complete if it did not take account of the judicial quality of mind which he brought to the presidency. Vast things were expected of this. We were to get the calm of the judge in place of the haste of the advocate. Some benefits have indeed resulted. Even those not friendly to President Taft must recall with admiration his patient and clear analysis of intricate matters laid before him. More than once he has appeared to the greatest advantage as a judge passing on claims and counterclaims, and making on all the impression of having no thought or purpose except to discover on which side the weight of evidence lay and to do exact justice. Nor has he failed, when necessary, to exhibit such a high display of judicial equipoise as was shown by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke when he said, 'These are the reasons which incline me to alter my opinion, and I am not ashamed of doing it, for I always thought it a much greater reproach to a judge to continue in his error than to retract it.'
Despite all the praise of the judicial mind, there are grounds for believing that it does not always make the best executive mind. The judge calls for all the facts. He desires to take time to reflect upon his cases. His final judgment he would make fully considered. This is admirable; but, for the President of the United States, it is sometimes unworkable. The law's delays go ill with swift executive action. While all the witnesses are being cross-examined, all the documents assembled and studied, the case itself changes or gets transferred to another tribunal —say, the newspapers, or an excited public. The man set for the dispatch of the multifarious affairs of the nation cannot exact a minute dossier for each one, and demand days to scrutinize and weigh each piece of evidence. He must proceed rapidly on the best and fullest information he can get within the time at his disposal —and he really has no more time to dispose of than is sufficient to settle the matter in hand before it gets to be a matter out of hand. This duty of almost instantaneous decision may be a hardship to an executive, may lead to mistakes or injustice, but it cannot be evaded. Bismarck put it with his blunt concreteness. An ordinary man may say that he does not know whether it will rain to-morrow. No such evasion for an executive. He must, said the Iron chancellor, assert with confidence: 'It will rain,' 'it will not rain.' If he is wrong, all the old women will beat him with their brooms, but that makes no difference; he must give judgment without hesitation or he is lost.
The judicial habit hinders not speed alone. Its other effects, when too frequently seen in an executive, are sometimes unhappy. He is bent on deliberately forming his judgment. But the public, whom he serves and with whom he must reckon, not only wants rapidity, but is content with rough approximations to the whole truth of a given case, provided that the decision throbs with vigor and conviction. The judge-executive, bent on accumulating the last scrap of evidence before even making up his own mind, is like Mr. Brooke in Middlemarch with his mania for getting up subjects by collecting all available pamphlets. That rueful gentleman admitted that he found it would n't do, and that he must 'pull up.’ So a born executive is all the while pulling up. When he has not time to unravel, he cuts through. He does not permit the search for abstract justice to engross him to the harmful delay of public business. His motto is to get the thing done and let them howl. And it must not be forgotten that some of the most disagreeable and politically hurtful howling is caused by the thing not being done.
An executive cannot always dispose of difficult subjects as it becomes a judge to do. For him to throw a case out of court is not the same thing as throwing it out of politics. What will satisfy his own intellect may simply make the matter seem worse to people without his laborious inquiry into the whole of it. And, finally, the judicial way of doing business is not the way of the shrewd advertiser. The public cannot be fed by a judge-executive with advance information as to how the case is going, and that a smashing blow in behalf of the people will be dealt as soon as the court can get through the necessary but irksome formalities, throw away the gown and seize the club. A judicial bearing is nothing to hurrah about. Somehow it does n't go well in big head-lines. The patient student of all the ins and outs of a great administrative problem does not easily get into the newspapers as an heroic figure. Of President Taft, as of Lord Roberts, it can be said, "E don't advertise.' But it is doubtful whether he could if he wanted to. The judge in him would prevent it. This is not to his discredit, but it is certainly not to his advantage in dealing with the clamor-accustomed public to whose tender mercies he found himself turned over.
At times when the ardor prava jubentium has beaten upon him, Mr. Taft has shown a fine indifference to it. If the thing which he has done is not popular, though he is profoundly convinced that it is right, he can be as serene as a summer morn while the crowd storms. There is even a reckless vein in him, leading him sometimes to display something like bravado in defying partisan demands and disregarding political warnings. The Duke of Devonshire was said to have a general air of you-be-damnedness. Mr. Taft has not that. but there are moments when his impatience of petty criticism, or his anger at being personally misunderstood or misrepresented, breaks through, and he is ready to tell objectors, no matter how numerous or powerful, that if they don't like it they can do the other thing. Especially do threats of punishment at the polls stir the wrath of this good-natured man. He is president now, and as for talk about keeping him from being president again, that has not the weight of a straw with him, if it comes to that; and his party and the people can do what they like with the office. They must not expect him to crawl to get it. Indeed, Mr. Taft seems sometimes to take positive delight in outraging would-be political advisers by flouting their suggestions and disdaining their dire predictions.
To one such volunteer counselor, who was urging the President to do this and that in order to make sure of the delegates from a certain state, Mr. Taft bluntly said, 'Well, they can vote for me or they can go hang, and I don't care which they do.' Nor was this idle boasting. The President likes popularity. He is as gratified by pudding and praise as the next man. But he can live without them. He can face popular dissatisfaction, can encounter personal dislike, and can contemplate political defeat undismayed.
He has had, it would seem, more than his share of official bad luck in the presidency, has had fightings within and fears without; but he has borne himself with head erect. More than once he has had occasion to show that he comes under the definition of Pericles: 'Those are the greatest states and the greatest men who, when misfortunes come, are the least depressed in spirit and the most resolute in action.'
The country has heard little of M. Taft's courage. It has not been bruited abroad in the press. The quiet supposition was that the whole stock of presidential courage had been exhausted before he became president. But he has his honest share of the quality, even if he does not choose to make a spectacle of it. To fight upon the stronger side is easy; but to risk much for a hazardous cause, because it embodies one's convictions; to dare greatly in behalf of the unpopular; to be courageous enough to admit that 'the country may be wrong -this requires sterner stuff than is needed to storm the imminent deadly breach or to war with him that cometh against you with ten thousand votes when you know that your very defiance of him will win you a hundred thousand.
If one were to name the two acts of Mr. Taft's administration which most clearly made proof of his courage, one would doubtless select his signing of the reciprocity agreement with Canada and his advocacy of arbitration treaties covering even questions of national honor. Both were his own initiative, both were certain to expose him to attack and possibly to mortifying defeat, both stripped him of half his party following at a stroke; yet the approval of his own mature judgment was enough to make him press forward with both, with a determination which no warning of political consequences could shake. The Canadian project fell to the ground through no fault of his; but the satisfaction with which he took it up at the beginning mint have remained with him to the unfortunate end, for it is known that at the time he signed the compact he said to his intimates, 'Well, whatever Comes of this, nothing can rob me of the supreme content of having put my name to a document which stands for a policy of large and permanent good to this nation.' Such outward courage, joined to such inward consolations, surely enters into the highest statesmanship.
And an even loftier note has been struck by President Taft in going before his countrymen and urging them to lay every contention that threatens war, no matter how close to patriotic pride it seems to strike, before a high international tribunal, and to face the possibility that their cause may be held unjust. Thus to put the chauvinistic ranter to one side, to disdain the prophesying of smooth things about one's country being always right and always invincible, demands a courage in him who does it that is both rare and high. There is no glamour about it; it wakes not the insensate shout that responds to safe audacities; but it springs from, as it appeals to, that in man which is least brutal and therefore most brave.
With all his graces and virtues, President Taft is admitted by his best friends to be a 'poor politician.' This, of course, may be interpreted as praise. Not to be skilled in the 'tricking facilities' of political management or intrigue is no reproach to one who is in high office and whose nights and days should be filled with thoughts of large national concern. If he does, however, feel compelled to take a hand in the political game, he ought not to be a bungler at it; and that, unfortunately, Mr. Taft has more than once shown himself. This is partly due to his heavy-hand way of going about delicate negotiations. His very good nature sometimes has the air of elephantine trampling. If Disraeli had been his opponent, he would doubtless have flung a gibe at him about his 'Batavian grace.'
Mr. Taft's very bluntness of truth-speaking is a virtue that swells into a fault. When he has to confess a mistake or change a policy, he does it with a rude jar that brings the country up standing. The famous —Norton letter about patronage was one of those gratuitous and ghastly blunders that make the flesh creep. No, in all such ways, it must be conceded that Mr. Taft is no politician. And it is to be feared that he is not, either, in the higher sense in which a president who is at once leader of his party and spokesman of the nation ought to be, an excellent politician.
He ought, for example, to have a sure instinct for what will hit the country between wind and water. He should be sagacious enough to know at a glance what sentiments or measures will 'go,' and what will fly back like boomerangs. Mr. Taft has given few evidences of having that kind of divining rod in his possession. Quite the contrary, he has frequently appeared blissfully ignorant of the fated popular effect of what he was doing or urging. Lord North said of a certain bill laid before the ministers: 'I don't know what you call this, but it ought to be named a bill to knock up this Government.' The Payne-Aldrich tariff was obviously a bill of that description, and yet the President did not discover that it was —did not, that is, until too late. He light-heartedly played with the political dynamite that had been placed in his hands, and was all unaware until the explosion came. Then, indeed, he manfully set about endeavoring to repair the damage. But the wound inflicted upon his own repute for sound judgment was then past healing. He had given his fellow citizens a test of his political sagacity, and, after that, nothing could make them believe that he really understood them. This, in a political leader, was worse than a crime.
On the side, too, of political imagination and passion, Mr. Taft comes short. No one can say that there is anything of the grand style about him. His language is commonplace. The judicial cast given to most of his writings and speeches tends to make them dull. Between his carefully poised sentences and nicely qualified assertions, all heat escapes. There is seldom movement or élan. Occasionally, when he is greatly roused, as in his veto of the Arizona Statehood bill, or in some of his vehement retorts in the affair of Secretary Ballinger, -magnificent, but not war,—we see his somewhat sluggish nature fused and glowing. But in general he is so calm, so balanced, so judicial, that no one can possibly go away from reading or hearing him with the heart burning within. It is not wholly a question of style. Grover Cleveland was also a lumbering writer, with a legal pen, but somehow intense convictions and beating energy seemed often to be conveyed by his clumsy expressions. We rarely catch this in Mr. Taft. His party long since ceased to look to him for piquant phrases or words that are half battles.
And it must be added that, if his utterance is seldom inspiring, it is because his conceptions are not vivid, that little of his political thinking rises above the ordinary, that he appears never to be drawn on by the vision splendid or to have flashes of imaginative leadership. For to the making of a great statesman impulse goes as well as judgment. It is not enough that he be a man with a mind like a weighing machine. Mr. Taft's often appears to be of that species, balancing the dry reasons coolly in the scales. This kind of grocer-intellect is admirable for certain parts of the business of administration, but it can never enter into the realm of the imagination by which-it is as true to-day as when Napoleon said it —the world is governed.
President Taft has a strong simplicity, and a sober power. He can pass ably upon men's arguments, but their hearts he frequently shows that he is unable to read. He seems often to stand like one puzzled by the passions of his fellow citizens. Their interests he thinks he can perceive, and their reasonings he can analyze; but when they show that they are guided by deep feeling, he appears baffled. Yet the impetuous part of human nature a public man must be able to understand and to get into touch with, even if he does not exemplify it himself, or else he will never do the work of an inspiring leader. It is in such knowledge of men and times and circumstances, as in prescient and interpreting imagination, with a capacity to take lire and to set on fire, that Mr. Taft is most wanting.
His calmness is too extreme for the troublous times, politically, on which his presidency fell. A vague but pervasive discontent spread through the country, and Mr. Taft had not the touch of genius either to dissipate it or to give the people some higher and more appealing thing to occupy their attention and rouse their zeal. Certain elements of his own party dropped away from him, and there issued no bugle summons to call them back or else leave them apart ashamed. Francis Thompson's lines can, down to a certain point, honestly be applied to Mr. Taft:—
Firm is the man, and set beyond the cast
Of Fortune's game;
but we cannot add that he has a 'falcon soul,' and lacking that, his lack of the essential quality of high political leadership stands confessed.
No prediction, whether immediate or remote, is here intended. Political prophecy is well described as the most gratuitous form of blundering. It is not of President Taft's deserts at the hands of the people, but of his nature and of his work that this writing has sought to give an impartial account. He confronted an enormously difficult task, and some parts of it he has got through admirably. His large serenity and his steadiness as of a man carré á la base have perceptibly helped the country to recover from the mistake of supposing, as Thucydides observed that the Greeks did in times of political disturbance, that 'frantic energy was the true quality of a man.' Nor, if there has been something slack about Mr. Taft's administration, has there been anything in it low in tone. As honest a gentleman as ever lived, William H. Taft has striven to keep about him men in whose presence corruption dare not openly show its head.
This is no place to list his achievements, nor need his failures beset down seriatim. Only the public man as seen is both has the effort been made to picture. An infinitely kind person, yet firm in what he deems to be right and just; his brain clear and strong, though not rapid and not highly developed in the lobes where imagination has her seat; of slow-burning construction, but capable of giving forth both flame and heat; of wide experience and a considerable range of knowledge; his temper well suited, by its modesty, frankness, and resilience, to undergo the slings and arrows of a political fortune which might well be called outrageous, Mr. Taft is one who everybody would have vowed would make an ideal president if he had not, in the actual office, come far short of the highest success. Psychologically, he has failed to hit it off with his fellow countrymen, and that is far more disastrous to a public leader than to have made a botch of it politically. It is far too early, and it would he much too cruel, to say that Mr. Taft has had the misfortune, in Bacon's phrase, of attending the funeral of his own reputation, but he would be the first to agree that the high hopes (he himself would call them exaggerated hopes) which the people had of his presidency have not been met. Allowing as much as in fairness should be allowed for the unforeseeable mischances of politics, something of fault and failing in the President himself remains.
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