William H. Taft is often remembered as the president who may have gotten himself stuck in the White House bathtub.
He would prefer to be remembered as the only former president to have also served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Taft suffered the regrettable misfortune of having his presidency sandwiched between Theodore Roosevelt (a hard act to follow no matter what your political taste) and Woodrow Wilson (who history remembers as a president of great consequence).
But Taft’s story is an interesting tale of a talented legal mind who found himself incessantly (and reluctantly) pulled into the political arena. His wife constantly pushed him to live up to his “full potential” and Theodore Roosevelt, seeking a worthy successor, failed to appreciate that he didn’t have the necessary dose of enthusiasm, or talent, for leading the nation.
The destruction of Taft’s friendship with TR is heartbreaking (and captivating) but in the end, of course, Taft outlived the increasingly unhinged Roosevelt by more than a decade. And Taft spent most of that time exactly where he wanted to be all along: as Chief Justice.
Unfortunately, the world of Taft-oriented biographies is not sizable. There are few to choose from and I have only three in my collection. One is quite old, one is focused primarily on his presidency and one is really a dual-biography providing equal time to Teddy Roosevelt. But despite this limited selection, I came to know Taft quite well.
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* The first biography of Taft I read was actually part of my earlier journey through Theodore Roosevelt’s life: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2013 “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
This biography simultaneously explores the lives of both Roosevelt and Taft in an incredibly interesting and nearly seamless way. Because their public careers were so closely intertwined during decades of great consequence, Goodwin’s approach seems elegant…and almost too obvious.
“The Bully Pulpit” is very well written, consistently entertaining and absolutely compelling. But it cannot quite replace dedicated biographies of TR or Taft, where more emphasis and context can be provided for each. Overall, however, “The Bully Pulpit” proved a fantastic read and should be considered indispensable for anyone tackling either TR or Taft. (Full review here)
* My first Taft-only biography was Henry Pringle’s 1939 “The Life and Times of William Howard Taft.” Weighing in at a hefty 1,079 pages, this two-volume classic seems to be the best full-scale treatment of Taft despite its flaws.
Its writing style occasionally feels old and stiff and it has a tendency to embrace far more detail than most readers will ever require (or desire). And although it contains countless nuggets of brilliance and wisdom, the reader is forced along a lengthy path to collect them all.
At times this feels more like an exhaustive account of the history of Taft’s era than an analysis of Taft; the reader is left wanting to meet this former president on a more personal level. But no other biography can match the breadth or depth this biography provides so despite its imperfections this remains the standard biography of the 27th president. (Full review here)
* The last biography of Taft I read was “The William Howard Taft Presidency” by Lewis Gould. I had already read his “The Presidency of William McKinley” (which I didn’t like) and skipped his book “The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt” since my library was already well-stocked with TR biographies.
But Gould’s survey of the Taft presidency is more interesting and fulfilling than I expected. While Taft’s pre- and post-presidencies were covered with too much efficiency (by design), Gould provides an excellent preface, crisp analysis and a nice review of earlier Taft biographies.
The Taft presidency is not one overflowing with excitement or drama (except for the maelstrom related to Taft’s falling-out with Roosevelt) but Gould handles this four-year period very nicely. Unfortunately, the book’s dispassionate perspective leaves much of Taft’s colorful personality unexplored and it reads more like a fact-focused CIA dossier than a descriptive personality profile. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of William Taft: “The Life and Times of William Howard Taft” by Henry Pringle
Best “Unconventional” Bio of Taft: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit”